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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2014

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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