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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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