Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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