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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

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Penang Island Jazz Festival
Bayview Beach Resort
December 4-7, 2014

It was business as usual at the Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014, following the tenth anniversary celebrations of the previous year. That milestone was no small feat for Festival Director Paul Augustin, business partner Chin Choo Yeun and their loyal team, in a region where jazz of all stripes—with the notable exception of smooth jazz—occupies the bottom rung of the popular music ladder. Along the way, the PIJF has not only established itself as the longest-running jazz festival in Malaysia but as one of the most internationally renowned jazz festivals in Asia. Now the PIJF embarks on the second decade of its great musical adventure.

Other Asian jazz festivals, sadly, have not proved nearly as durable. There were almost as many ushers as audience members at the one-off Niu's On Silom 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival in 2009, notwithstanding a program that boasted Chris Potter's Underground, the James Carter Organ Trio, the Gwilym Simcock Trio and Richard Bona. The Bangkok Jazz Festival has lain fallow for four years despite repeated rumors of resuscitation. More recently, the North Sea Hong Kong Jazz Festival folded its hand before the game had even started, due to poor ticket sales. The PIJF may be small-scale, but it has found the formula to succeed where bigger and better bank-rolled festivals have fallen by the wayside.

There's no single element that has positioned the PIJF as a significant event in the Malaysian cultural calendar. Though few are the marquee names that have played the main stage over the years the PIJF is synonymous with good music. Many bands that make it on the Jazz By The Beach main stage have gone on to play at bigger festivals throughout the region and beyond. The PIJF's location in the lush gardens of the Bayview Beach Resort, flanked by sandy beach and the Straits of Malacca on one side and tropical, forest-clad mountain on the other is hard to beat.

The festival has consistently nurtured local talent, establishing exchange programs with other countries that have helped raise the international profile of Malaysian musicians. The Malaysian jazz scene may not have the depth of those in Thailand, Indonesia, China or South Korea but through the PIJF's Creative Malaysia Programme the festival has done its level best to encourage aspiring musicians by providing a performance platform, with several acts gravitating from the small, showcase stages to the main stage over the years. PIJF 2014 was no exception, with fourteen young Malaysian bands playing and former fringe performer Ray Rozells strutting his stuff on the main stage.

In recent editions the PIJF has played host to international jazz festival directors and programmers, resulting in return invitations to festivals, industry forums, trade fares and showcases around the world that have cemented international working relationships. The regional networking of previous years has expanded to Europe, ensuring that the PIJF is abreast of current international trends. Serious, the UK's largest international producer of jazz, world and classical music, the Salford Music Research Centre, the Brisbane International Jazz Festival, the moers festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival were all represented at PIJF 2014.

As Augustin said in an interview with AAJ in 2013, the PIJF is built on a foundation of friendship—the very pillar of both the festival's appeal and of its success. Familiar faces turn up year after year in the audience and in the media folk that come from far and wide. Importantly, it's friends and family that make up the team of volunteers that's such a vital component of the festival's smooth running. All are supporters of the PIJF and together they bring something of a big-family feel to the event.

As the PIJF embarks on its second decade it faces new challenges. Augustin harbors ambitions to grow the festival, which is in line with the Ministry for Tourism's efforts to position Penang as a city of arts and culture. The ball is rolling: a World Music Festival and a Literary Festival have added muscle to the calendar of cultural events in recent years; England's The Guardian newspaper voted Penang as one of the Top Ten Must Visit Destinations in 2014 while Lonely Planet voted Penang the World's Number One Destination for Food. Penang, it seems, is fashionable.

Yet the almost complete lack of poster and flyer advertising for the PIJF 2014 in Penang's World Heritage center of Georgetown—bulging with tourists—or along the city's thoroughfares was strange to say the least. It was also at odds with the PIJF's program notes as penned by the Penang State Minister for Tourism Development and Culture, Danny Law Heng Kiang, who declared the desire to further stimulate Penang's tourism industry. The PIJF may be one of the best jazz festivals in Asia but it also holds the dubious distinction of being one of the least advertised festivals by a host city.

Musically, however, the PIJF 2014 delivered the goods. Its usual cosmopolitan menu, with acts from England, America, Switzerland, Portugal, Germany, Holland, South Korea, Canada, Japan and Malaysia served up a jazz buffet that ran from its traditional origins to its contemporary cutting edge, with a liberal dose of World Music, funk, pop and soul added to the mix.

Days 1 -2: Photographic/Poster Exhibition, Island Palm Beach Boys, Dutch Swing College Band, The Beads

The first two official days of the festival were fairly low key. Thursday saw the launch of the PIJF Jazz Gallery -a photographic exhibition of the festival's first ten years and a poster exhibition celebrating the musical heritage of Penang from the 1940s to the 1960s. Festival Director Paul Augustin and researcher/curator James Lochhead gave a joint presentation on the city's musical heritage, a long-term project that will see the publication of a lavishly illustrated book on the subject some time in 2015.

Traditionally over the years the PIJF has held a Jazz With a Heart Concert to raise funds for local charitable causes. This year's beneficiary was the Persatuan Kebajikan Shammah(Shammah Home for Abandoned Children). In previous years this evening took the form of a dinner, where large numbers turned out to enjoy a social occasion while several bands played the stage of the Bayview Beach Resort ballroom.

This year the dinner was scrapped with the noble intention of positioning the music center stage as opposed to providing mere background noise. Unfortunately, with the food gone from the evening's menu, Penang society failed to turn up in any sort of numbers and a rather thin crowd watched several bands perform.

First up was the Island Palm Beach Boys, whose brand of Hawaiian music had its heyday in Penang from the 1940s to the 1960s. In one of Augustin's more left-field programming moves the Island Palm Beach Boys had opened the Jazz By The Beach program of the PIJF 2009 where they received a warm reception. Five years on, the walking bass lines, gently chugging ukulele and country-tinged blues were still the order of the day, with singers Kathleen Rodrigues and Edmond Prior sharing vocal duties. Next, the Dutch Swing College Band gave a rousing rendition of traditional Dixieland jazz. The DSCB had first played Penang in 1962, prompting clarinetist and saxophonist Bob Kape—band member since 1966—to remark: "It was such an enormous success they invited us back."

Finally, there was a serious dose of pop-cover nostalgia courtesy of Penang band The Beads. Three of the original four members, Fred Cheah, Kenny Chu and Albert Choo were playing together for the first time in forty five years—without any signs of rust—much to the delight of locals.

The evening was, however, lacking in atmosphere. The bright lights of the ballroom and the school assembly-style seating provided a rather sterile atmosphere in which to listen to music. The organizers might consider jazzing up the event next year. It wouldn't be too difficult to transform the ballroom into a jazz club set-up, with dimmed lighting, bamboo tables and chairs, a few candles and potted palms here and there and a bar with waiter service to create more of a sense of occasion. It would likely be easier then to sell the event and raise more money for a worthy cause.

Day 3: Sunrise @TSG, Workshops, The Island Music Forums

Prior to Saturday's main stage program there was plenty of activity, beginning with Sunrise@TSG. More people than ever made the effort to reach the Tropical Spice Gardens for 7am where the De Leon Jazz Experience-Acoustrings, acoustic indie duo Ashes and Oak Trees and singer Ray Rozells Unplugged got the day off to a soulful start. When this early morning program was introduced back in PIJF 2012, Augustin felt that there was every chance it would bomb but the healthy numbers in attendance proved that it's becoming increasingly popular.

There were two talks followed by panel discussions either side of lunch and workshops ran from early morning to the middle of the afternoon, covering themes as diverse as the values of cross-cultural music collaboration, the origins of traditional jazz and music innovation through unusual combinations of instruments. Two standout workshops were those by Canadian pianist/singer Laila Biali and bassist Richard Bona.

Biali's versions of Bjork's "Venus as a Boy," Sara McLaughlin's "Ice Cream," Coldplay's "Yellow"—inspired by Chopin's "Raindrop" prelude—and a fresh take on "Autumn Leaves" showcased her facility for captivating arrangements and a harmonic sophistication that rendered each song utterly personal. For Asian jazz musicians, particularly those who interpret more than compose, finding an original form of expression is key to a successful international career. Slavish imitation of the standards is unlikely to open too many doors.

This notion was confirmed by Reiner Michalke—Artistic Director of the moers festival—in his presentation entitled "One Step Ahead: Festival Programming in a Competitive World," when he stated that European festivals would be unlikely to program an Asian jazz band if it was just playing classic American jazz. These words echoed when watching the young Malaysian band The Tett Lim Effect on the fringe stage. Drummer Lim's sextet, with three saxophones in the front line, gave smooth renditions of "Now's The Time," "All the Things You Are," "Moanin'" and "Summertime." Although these young musicians are just starting out, their aspirations as jazz musicians will likely be tied to the extent that they allow their imaginations and curiosity to develop.

Michalke went on to outline the diverse motivations behind running a jazz festival before an open discussion followed with Amy Pearce, Associate Director of Serious (producer of the EGF London Jazz Festival) and Frank Bolder, the Program Manager of North Sea Jazz Festival. All agreed that commercial and artistic considerations usually go hand in glove at most jazz festivals and that there's no such thing as a sure-fire success when it comes to programming. As Pearce said: "You don't always know when you're taking a risk."

The moers festival has been as adventurous as any jazz festival in Europe since it was founded in 1971 by Burkhard Hennen. It has changed its name and several times over the years it has changed location. Musically too, the festival has evolved, though experimental and avant-garde music remain essential components of the four-day festival. Michalke, who took over the festival in 2005 paid tribute to Hennen when he said: "The greatest gift my predecessor gave me was a curious and open-minded audience."

For Augustin and the PIJF it's been a challenge from the very beginning to balance the books while stretching the Penang audience's artistic expectations, though throughout the history of the PIJF the hits have far outweighed the misses.

The other standout workshop of the day was Richard Bona's. Taking the form of a Q&A interspersed with some achingly beautiful playing, Bona's tales underlined the need for musicians to play their best all the time, as you never know who might be watching. Bona recounted how he was playing in an empty room in Paris when, unbeknown to him, Joe Zawinul chanced by and urged the young bassist to call him if he ever went to New York. Bona did just that and before he'd settled in to the Big Apple Zawinul had whisked him off on tour.

Bona's practical advice for musicians centered around the necessity to practise hard: "You think you're ever gonna learn Malay if you don't speak Malay?" he asked rhetorically. The key to mastery of any instrument, Bona underlined, is repetition. The bassist also debunked the notion of improvisation as something mystical. "You think I never played those notes before? I played them thousands of time." He also urged guitarists and bassists to sing: "Singing all the time is very important to get to know your instrument well" he explained. In both his annecdotes and in his highly lyrical playing, Bona exuded a charm that touched all who were present.

The other presentation as part of The Island Music Forum was by Professor Tony Whyton, Director of the Salford Music Research Centre at the University of Salford. Whyton is one of the leading figures in new thinking on jazz, typified by the Rhythm Changes: Rethinking Jazz Cultures project, which has brought together the world's leading jazz academics in a number of thought-provoking conferences.

Whyton's presentation revolved around the way that binary ways of thinking tend to dominate how jazz is talked about and presented: American jazz versus European, black music versus white music, art music versus popular music, and so on. Whyton's writings, notably Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths And The Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane And The Legacy Of An Album (Oxford University Press, 2013) have tackled these binary ways of thinking and encouraged a more inclusive approach to jazz studies.

Whyton made the point that the historicizing of jazz has rooted it in the past and noted the tensions that exist over the ownership of jazz. Referencing the recent brouhaha over The New Yorker magazine's satire on Sonny Rollins, Whyton highlighted the 'insider' and 'outsider' nature of jazz and the kneejerk reactions that any criticism—whether satirical or parodic—of the music's icons can cause. Parody such as the Fast Show's Jazz Club [see You Tube], Whyton observed, can allow fresh insights into our sometimes complex relationship with jazz—the imagery, rhetoric and glorification—and thus have the potential to widen the jazz discourse.

Like most festivals with a busy program it's impossible to catch everything. Workshops, talks and fringe performances overlap and so a little careful planning was required. One of the fringe performers on the Creative Malaysia Programme who caught the eye was twenty two year-old guitarist Sheila Julis from Subang Jaya. A self-taught fingerstyle guitarist, Julis impressed with a technique that matched rhythmic, melodic and percussive sensibility. Her own material in the singer-songwriter vein did not quite gel with the dominant instrumental fare but she's clearly a guitarist to watch out for in the future.

Seth Glier

The music on the main stage got underway shortly before sunset with pianist/singer-songwriter Seth Glier. Massachusetts native Glier's second album The Next Right Thing (Mpress Records, 2011) was Grammy nominated and he's also been the recipient of two Independent Music Awards for Best Love Song and Best Social Action Song. On songs like "Walk Katie Home" and "Man I Used to Be" Glier artfully conjured blue-collar Billie Joel-esque anthems and the confessional lyricism of Randy Newman.

A fine pianist, Glier matched rhythmic drive with nuance. Away from the keys and center stage the singer evoked chain-gang Americana on the foot-stomping numbers, "The Stars and Glitter" and "The Next Right Thing." On acoustic guitar, and accompanied by a chorus of circling birds, Glier strummed the Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg song "If I Only Had a Heart," which segued into the touching "Good Man," another impressively crafted tune from Things I Should Let You Know (Mpress Records, 2013). Glier was joined by singer Crystal Bowersox on a couple of tunes, the duo harmonizing beautifully on "If I Could Change One Thing."

Glier's emotive set pushed all the right buttons with the Penang crowd. At twenty four his best years are still ahead; given the quality of his songs and the passion of his performance that's something to get excited about.


German trio CNIRBS were up next with a cerebral yet highly grooving set that served up intricate global rhythms in arrangements that recalled early Django Bates. The Malian-flavored track "Segou" saw keyboard player Matthäus Winnitzki and euphonium player Stephan Meinberg alternate between melodic unison lines and flowing improvisation over drummer Konrad Ulrich's lightly skipping rhythms. From Africa to the sunny dub-reggae of "Piosenka dia Rodziny" and the Latin-esque, vampy "Don Calypso," the trio navigated changing rhythmic soundscapes with discipline and panache.

The dreamy trumpet and pulsing bass line on the intro to "Disco Girl" could almost have stemmed from an Erik Truffaz session, though the powerful, quasi-psychadelic rock that followed bore the stamp of a trio devoid of cliché and obvious influences. An engaging set concluded with a Balkans-inspired number that featured extended euphonium and drum solos.

Throughout Asia most popular music is vocal and the PIJF has always positioned vocalists prominently. That said the PIJF has also embraced progressive instrumental bands and after the success of the tuba-led Norwegian trio PELbO in 2011 Augustin was right to think that the Penang audience would be receptive to CNIRBS.

Laila Biali

In recent years more and more jazz singers have turned to contemporary popular music for inspiration -Cassandra Wilson, Christine Tobin and Dianne Reeves all spring to mind. However, just as interpreting the jazz standards requires something special to stand out, so too covering iconic pop and rock songs poses a similar challenge. Singer/pianist Laila Biali—along with bassist Ross MacIntyre and drummer Dimiitrious Doxos—rose to the challenge of placing her very personal seal on well-known pop fare.

By the time Biali had negotiated Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," Coldplay's "Yellow" and a funky version of Ron Sexmith's "Secret Heart" she had the crowd in her pocket. Biali's scintillating playing on piano, vibraphone and home-made percussion and her pristine vocal delivery and original arrangements were captivating. On tour, Biali accepts new song requests from her fans on Facebook, an original way to keep her on her creative toes and keep things fresh from night to night. David Bowie's "Let's Dance" worked particularly well, revolving around a driving bass ostinato.

Biali conducted the crowd on choral duties to great effect on Imogen Heap's "Let Go" and stood center stage for an intimate rendition of Eden Ahbez' classic "Nature Boy.' An up-tempo, instrumental version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba" crowned a classy set. Jazz history is peppered with great vocalists but for aspiring pianists/singers looking for contemporary inspiration Biali is as good a place as any to start.


The international collective Monswezi brought the rhythms and melodies of Mozambique and Zimbabwe to Jazz By The Beach stage. The set was largely drawn from The Village (Riverboat, 2013), which was nominated for the prestigious Songlines Music Awards 2014. From the opener "Hondo," vocalist and mbira (thumb piano) player Hope Masike was central, with tenor saxophonist Hallvard Godal's Charles Lloyd-esque ruminations and the gently percolating rhythms of bassist Putte Johander, drummer Erik Nylander and percussionist Calu Tsemane elevating the songs.

Tsemane played a folded piece of cast-off cardboard molded over his lap that he had been using in workshops in Africa. It was his principal percussion instrument and provided the pulse for the celebratory "Ndinewe," sung in Shona -the main language of Zimbabwe. Godal switched to bass clarinet on occasion, notably on the softy atmospheric "Kuenda Mbire."

There was little that was conventional about Monoswezi, not least the fact that women seldom play the mbira. African traditional music and mellow Scandinavian jazz tones combined to form a gently intoxicating and refreshingly original brew.

Dutch Swing College Band

The Dutch Swing College Band may be the oldest continuous jazz band in the world. Formed as an amateur student band on Liberation Day in 1945, the DSCB turned professional in 1960 and has been touring the world ever since, backing the likes of Joe Venuti and Teddy Wilson while keeping the flame of Dixieland trad jazz alive.

Fifty two years after the band last played in Penang the seven-piece led by clarinetist Bob Kaper gave a swinging performance that swept the crowd up in a wave of enthusiasm. The set highlighted tunes from The Music Goes Round and Round (DSCMusic, 2014) and with 2015 set to mark the band's 70th anniversary the band were clearly in the mood to celebrate a little early.

Richard Bona Group

The closing act on Saturday was the Richard Bona Group. Forty minutes was always going to seem short. Most of the fireworks were left to guitarist Adam Stoler, with Bona, drummer Ludwig Alfonso and keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk locking into powerful, funk-fueled grooves that had the crowd up dancing. The gorgeously melodic, funky "Kalabancoro" and the Latin-esque "O Sen Sen"—staples of Bona's live shows—provided set highlights. Bona, despite possessing chops like Jaco Pastorius, impressed more with his musicality than his virtuosity. After thirty quick-fire minutes the band left the stage, returning for a two-song encore that lifted the roof once more. It was a blast of a show but somehow Bona's relaxed workshop earlier in the day was more satisfying.

There's perhaps a case for the PIJF to reduce the number of bands from six to five, primarily to give the crowd more of the headliner. It would also give the stage-team a slightly longer turn around between groups and allow the crowd a little more time to roam the grounds, consume and interact.

Day 4: Workshops, The Island Music Forums

There were a few bleary eyes on day four following the previous evening's jam session that still had legs at three am. Nevertheless, there were decent audiences for the workshops and the Island Music Forum presentations and discussions. Workshop topics covered the power of song to redirect a life by Crystal Bowersox and Seth Glier, the first steps of a band by Fresh Dixie Project and a history of Cape Verdean music by Carmen Souza. The presentation by this author reflected on the challenges and opportunities facing Asian jazz, followed by Amy Pearce's presentation on the importance of music networking and collaboration.

Around one hundred jazz festivals have started up in Asia in the past decade, with fifty three in Indonesia alone. For festival directors funding and programming provide the major challenges. For musicians, marketing themselves and finding an audience is the priority. Of course, such concerns are universal but these are relatively new challenges for many Asian jazz promoters and musicians.

It was surprising to hear panelist Victor Kye, Deputy Director of the Jarasum International Jazz Festival say that there is basically no market for jazz in South Korea, particularly given that the JIJF draws a quarter of a million people every year. If the appetite for jazz is really so small in South Korea it would explain why the government is so actively promoting South Korean jazz and contemporary folk music abroad.

Yuri Sasamoto, Assistant Programmer of Blue Note Japan pointed out that the appetite for classic American-style jazz seems to be waning in Japan, with the younger generation preferring more contemporary styles. This trend may in fact be universal, to a greater or lesser degree depending on where you look, but certainly Asian jazz musicians are more likely to find an audience at home—and even more so abroad—if their music is original.

Pearce's presentation outlined the nuts and bolts of the EFG London Jazz Festival in terms of the numbers of concerts, the venue partners and audience figures. The London Jazz Festival is largely unrecognizable from the 1980s when its focus was predominantly on American jazz and its iconic practitioners. These days the LGF is much more expansive in its world view of jazz and has built up an impressive network—particularly across Europe—of embassies, promoters, agents, venues and other festivals. Collaboration and partnership, underlined Pearce, are essential ingredients in building a sustainable festival.

The partnership extends to the musicians. Following the lead of younger festivals like Poland's Jazztopad, the EFG London Jazz Festival in the last two editions has commissioned dozens of new works from jazz musicians. Pearce also drew attention to Serious' initiative Take Five Europe, which offers ten musicians from across Europe the opportunity to increase their profile, musical skills and networking savvy during an intensive week-long residential course. By investing in the musicians Serious is building partnerships that can only strengthen the EFG London Jazz Festival—and pan-European jazz scenes—in years to come.

Pearce was joined by panelists Lynette Irwin, Director of the Melbourne Women's International Jazz Festival and Frank Bolder, Program Manager of the North Sea Jazz Festival. All concurred on the importance of networking and collaboration, with Pearce also emphasizing honesty as of overriding importance in successful, lasting collaborations.

Irwin also expressed the desire for closer collaborative ties between Australia and Asia, a theme that also came up during the Jazz Beyond Europe section of the European Jazz Conference 2014 held in Helsinki. An Australasian version of jazzahead!—perhaps rotating host country every year—might provide a valuable platform for emerging jazz festivals like the PIJF as well as lead to potentially greater collaboration both regionally and between the continents.

Jo Young Deok Trio

Winner of the grand prize at the Jazz Concourse Competition at the Jarasum International Jazz Festival in 2012, the Jo Young Deok Trio, consisting of guitarist Deok, bassist Park Jiwoong and drummer Choi Joseph got the final day of the PIJF 2014 off to a great start with the most straight-ahead set of the festival. The trio's debut album Attelage (EVANS, 2013) consisted of eleven originals, as well as tunes by Charlie Parker, Carla Bley and Django Reinhardt. However, in introducing several new tunes at the PIJF it appears that this trio is not content to rest on its laurels.

Deok's fluid articulation and melodic lines drew from both Korean folkloric sources and the jazz guitar tradition as typified by Joe Pass. Joseph was an animated presence on sticks and a subtle accompanist on brushes. In between his trio partners Park swung steadily enough, though the trio might have conveyed more excitement had the bassist played a little more out now and again. All in all, the Jo Young Deok Trio impressed with an engaging set that held the promise of greater things to come in the future.

The surprise of the PIJF 2014 came in the form of Schroeder-Headz. Pianist Shunsuke Watanabe is Shroeder Headz, whether playing solo or in larger ensembles. Here he was accompanied by drummer Takao Suzuki and bassist Shotaro Tamaki, playing only their second gig together. The power trio blazed its way through a set that combined the melodic hooks of Rusconi and the power of the Neil Cowley Trio but exuding an incredible energy that eclipsed them both. The trio's name is inspired by the Peanuts character Schroeder—the precocious pianist and lover of Beethoven—and Watanabe's vision of what music Schroeder might have played in later life.

Watanabe exercised fluid two-handed runs on the elegiac "Blue Bird" whislt "Follow Me" and "Newdays" were both poppishly tuneful. There was plenty of virtuosity in the trio's more helter-skelter moments but the pianist revealed a more controlled side on the lovely "Sleeping Bird"—a minimalist e.s.t-esque anthem minus the cascading piano runs. An explosive version of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" provided a stirring climax to an unforgettable show, with Watanabe ending up in a heap on the stage having attempted unsuccessfully to mount his Rhodes piano. Both pianist and piano, remarkably enough, were later declared fully fit. It will be a surprise if Schroeder-Headz doesn't go on to wow audiences on the major international festival circuit.

Crystal Bowersox

Such a fever-pitched show was a hard act to follow but Crystal Bowersox, with Seth Glier on piano, gave a very gutsy, seductive performance. A former American Idol runner up, Bowersox enjoyed commercial success with her debut album Farmer's Daughter (Jive/19, 2010) but there's absolutely nothing manufactured about her talent. A fine singer and songwriter, her lyrics on well crafted tunes like the bluesy "Movin' On" and "I Am" cut like a knife. Bowersox and Glier harmonized beautifully and their empathetic play on Bowersox' emotive tunes left a lasting impression. During their workshop earlier that day Bowersox had remarked how inspiring the PIJF experience had been. It's fair to say that Bowersox and Glier were fairly inspiring themselves.

Fresh Dixie Project

Fresh Dixie Project has traveled far in a short space of time. Since releasing its debut EP Dress Pretty Dance Ugly (2014) the five-piece London band has played some of the UK's most iconic venues and festivals, including Ronnie Scott's and WOMAD. The band was making its debut in Asia and put a lot of energy into original songs that blended elements of swing, soul and pop.

Led by the charismatic singer Jamie Johnson, Fresh Dixie Project had the crowd on its side from the get go with its infectious Louis Jordan meets Hothouse Flowers musical hybrid. The rhythm section of drummer Mark Gilyead, guitarist/bassist Jamie Biles and pianist Ben Golding laid down infectious grooves on tunes like "No Illusion" and "Pay My Way," while saxophonist Michael Jarman enjoyed the lion's share of the solos.

The Latin-cum-ska grooves of "Break, Bend and Fold" provided a set highlight and an enjoyable set concluded with the up-tempo "Over The Water," with its catchy vocal call and response. Fresh Dixie Project's blend of energy, grooves and melodic hooks went down a storm with the PIJF crowd and looks set to enjoy greater success in the future, wherever it touches down.

Carmen Souza

Lisbon-born Carmen Souza brought her world/jazz music to the penultimate set of the PIJF 2014. Joined by long-standing collaborator Theo Pas'cal on bass, keyboardist Aidan Glover and drummer Elias Kacomanolis, Souza's set seduced with music born of African and Brazilian rhythms and her Cape Verdean ancestry, mixed with a subtle jazz sensibility.

Souza's approach was laid back though her vocals and softly plucked guitar worked a gentle spell that evoked fellow Portuguese singer Maria João at times, notably on a swinging Brazilian-flavored version of the Charlie Parker/Miles Davis tune "Donna Lee." Singing in Creole, the gently swaying rhythms of "Afrika" with its sing-along refrain was particularly memorable and capped a fine set on a high note.

Jazzhats & Ray Featuring Man Kidal

The honor of closing the PIJF 2014 fell to Jazzhats & Ray Featuring Man Kidal. Singer Ray Rozells is a larger-than-life local boy—at 65 he's more youthful than most—and his boundless energy was infectious. The band was tight and guitarist Man Kidal of the well-known Malaysian band Lefthanded lit up the set with some scintillating rock solos.

Some questioned whether a covers band doing faithful versions of James Brown, Otis Redding and Prince numbers should be closing an international jazz festival but the PIJF director Augustin has, to his credit, always put great store in acknowledging the historical music-makers of Penang and Malaysia. When all's said and done, the crowd's enthusiastic response was the only seal of approval that either Augustin or Ray Rozells needed.

Wrap up

Another PIJF came to an end with the traditional jam session in the Bayview Beach Resort's cellar bar. With many of the musicians sitting in and everybody in the mood to party, the festivities ran well into the wee hours the following morning.

With 2015 designated Visit Penang Year, the Malaysian government will be showcasing the city's multiple festivals that run every month throughout the year. The state and local authorities could do the people of Penang—and the tourists alike—a great favor if they increased their efforts to advertise the colorful Penang Island Jazz Festival—Malaysia's flagship music festival.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Lee/Penang Island Jazz Festival




Jul 22 Mon

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