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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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