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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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.

Monoswezi

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.

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