Penang Island Jazz Festival 2016

Ian Patterson By

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A festival can inspire a young person to believe they can be artists, they can be a performer and they can make a living. Festivals can be important for that. —Joe Sidek, Director, George Town Festival, Penang
12 + 1 Penang Island Jazz Festival
Bayview Beach Resort/Various Venues
Penang, Malaysia
December 1-4, 2016

A tongue-in-cheek marketing ploy, or fear of inviting disaster? The Malaysians are doubtless no more or no less suspicious than folk in most places, but the organizers of the 12th + 1 Penang Island Jazz Festival, as it was officially billed, perhaps weren't taking any chances. Although the monsoon season in Western Malaysia isn't too severe, a late afternoon downpour could have put a downer on this outdoor event that stands as the longest continually running jazz festival in Malaysia.

Happily, despite grey skies, the PIJF 2016 passed off without meteorological calamity and served up its usual smorgasbord of jazz and jazz-related music to small but enthusiastic crowds. Maybe the numbers counted after all.

The Penang Island Jazz Festival has come a long way since it was founded by Paul Augustin and Chin Chi Yeun of Capricorn Connections in 2004. What was then a low-key festival for a predominantly local, Penang audience, has gradually evolved into a truly international festival for an audience of around 5,000, the majority of whom travel from outside Penang.

If numbers were visibly down this year, it may have much to do with the hit the Malaysian tourism industry seems to have taken, with one source estimating that national/international tourism is down by as much as 30% this year.

Still, as Artistic Director Augustin told All About Jazz in a 2013 interview, the PIJF has weathered its share of storms over the years and has always bounced back. Sponsors may have come and gone but the important constant over the years—increasingly so in the past half dozen editions—has been the growth of the PIJF's musical program, not so much in volume, although the festival has expanded, as in quality.

In recent years the PIJF has attracted the likes of In The Country, Youn Sun Nah, Martin Taylor, Francesca Han, Rio Sidik, Jazz Kamikaze—the longstanding band featuring Marius Neset and Morten Schantz—Rusconi, Richard Bona, Sizhukong, Boi Akih and Tommy Emmanuel, to cite just a few of the acts who have graced the main Jazz by the Beach stage.

The palm-tree flanked Jazz by the Beach stage is situated in the gardens of the Bayview Beach Resort, just yards from the beach and about fifteen miles from the World Heritage centre of George Town, with its wonderfully colorful mixture of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures animating the labyrinth streets and narrow alleys of one of the last corners of Old Asia.

Other venues at the PIJF included the neighbouring Hard Rock Hotel and the Bayview Beach Resort lobby, where the Creative Malaysia stages provided platforms for mostly young, up-and-coming Malaysian bands. The Tropical Spice Garden again played host to a ritual 7am concert (a highlight of PIJF 2016 for many), while the Bayview Beach Resort's Crystal Ballroom held a series of workshops, presentations and panel discussions.

Days One & Two

The first two days of PIJF were relatively low-key. Day one featured the opening concert of PIJF 2016, at 23 Love Lane, saw guitarist Kelvyn Yeang with singer Viv Adam, guitarist/singer-songwriter Az Samad, and singer-songwriter Liyana Fizi present an evening of acoustic music.

On day two, the Creative Malaysia program got underway, with thirteen bands rotating on the fringe stages of the Bayview Beach Resort and the Hard Rock Hotel, a program that ran over the next three days. The music on show covered a wide range of styles, from singer-songwriter fare and pop/rock cover acts to indie rock, jazz piano duos and pulsating ethnic folk vibes.

Basement Syndicate impressed with its soul 'n' funk-inflected rock, with a twist of jazz-cum-jam band groove. Vocalist Teddy Adhitya's strong, soulful delivery—not a million miles away from Steve Winwood—was out front on a couple of numbers, while bassist Idris Koh and drummer Omar Ibrahim's driving rhythms underpinned guitarist Uga Swastadi's soaring, blues-tinged flights. Basement Syndicate was, without a doubt, one of the most visceral and distinctive acts to have performed over the years on the Creative Malaysia stages at PIJF -surely a band with a bright future.

Another original act was the eight-piece band Sada Borneo, which fused electric instrumentation with traditional Malaysian instruments including sapeh—a lute-type instrument from central Borneo—, gamelan gongs and drums. Its infectious pounding rhythms, chants and well-defined melodies were a hit, although given the diversity of instruments at its disposal a little more dynamic range, compositionally speaking, might have resulted in greater impact. That said, Sada Borneo oozed confidence and charisma, and could well become, with a touch more refinement, a festival favorite in the vein of Aseana Percussion Unit.

Jazz acts were in short supply, though one worth noting was The Sesat Trio, featuring pianist Alton Wong, bassist Matteo Ricci and drummer Ateq. This trio's debut performance was at the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival in Borneo in July, yet despite its inexperience it gave an assured performance. Jazz arrangements of Malayan pop tunes worked extremely well—fertile ground for further development—while standards such as "But Not for Me" and Chick Corea's "Spain" were delivered with sensitivity and panache. Seventeen-year-old pianist Wong, influenced in equal measure by Kenny Barron, McCoy Tyner and Cory Henry, showed maturity in his deft touch, unobtrusive comping and confident soloing and looks like one to watch out for.

Tokyo Jazz Joints -The Story Behind: by James Catchpole

The celebration of photography and graphic art has been a staple of the PIJF for a number of years. World-renowned photographers such as Ziga Koritnik and William Ellis have exhibited at the PIJF and galleries of posters from jazz festivals around the world have added color to the event. This year, posters from the fifty years of Finland's famous Pori Jazz Festival were on display, while jazz broadcaster James Catchpole (OK Jazz Podcast) gave a fascinating talk about Tokyo's jazz bars/cafes, against the backdrop of photos by Phillip Arneill.

Arneill and Catchpole, both Tokyo residents, have trod the labyrinth of Tokyo's back alleys and hidden corners to painstakingly record the one hundred and thirty or so dedicated jazz bars/cafes. As Catchpole recounted, they have chronicled more than half of these often dark and claustrophobic, yet highly atmospheric temples of jazz—and their owners—,beautifully captured by Arneill's lens. The ongoing project, Catchpole recounted, has a sense of urgency, as many of the jazz bar proprietors are of advanced age. Despite the fact that smoke and alcohol seem to be constant companions to the jazz—nearly always vinyl—many of the seemingly indestructible proprietors have been leading this lifestyle for several decades.

Still, the reality, as Catchpole underlined, is that these jazz joints are slowly disappearing, as owners pass away and as urban renewal extends its reach. Where there were over two hundred and fifty such jazz joints in the early 1970s, today, Catchpole said, there are about half that number. In a fascinating talk, Catchpole guided the small but rapt audience from photo to photo, providing fascinating insight into an insular sub-world of jazz culture.

Catchpole and Arneill's Tokyo Jazz Joints project was first exhibited in New York in 2015 and has since showed in California and now Penang, Malaysia. An in-depth interview with Catchpole and Arneill shedding greater light on this unique project will appear in About Jazz in early 2017.

PIJF Jazz With a Heart

For a number of years, PIJF has held a fund-raising dinner with music in aid of local charities, This year three bands performed but the dinner, despite the evening's billing and for reasons unstated, was not. The upside was that the decent crowd assembled in the Crystal Ballroom could appreciate the music, headlined by Marutyri, without the distraction of eating and the loud social interaction that usually accompanies it. First up was Northern Jazz Unit Quintet with a standards set, led by pianist Jerome Quah—a tireless music educator, big-band leader and jazz advocate—and featuring vocalist Elyssa Tan Ngerong—a jazz diva of the old school.

The success of the evening, however, was UPSI Big Band, a thirty-piece ensemble from Tanjung Malim Penak—four hours from Penang—formed in 2010. With the rhythm section and guitarists on stage, and brass flanking either side of the stage level with the audience, UPSI's powerful performance of tunes by Gordon Goodwin, leader of the Grammy award-winning big band Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, were enthusiastically received by the audience.

Like Goodwin's Big Phat Band, UPSI's aesthetic struck a balance between the sound of the big bands' hey-day of the 1930s and 1940s and more contemporary textures, typified by the band's excellent lead guitarists. The soloists played with verve and passion but the real star was the ensemble itself when in full swing. Led by Music Director Zamrus Bin Hashim, UPSI has been together for just a year, rehearsing together once a week. All the musicians are diploma/degree graduates of Universiti Pendidkan Sultan Idris and are primarily music educators and not performers. However, with appearances at the World Youth Jazz Festival, Kuala Lumpur as well as at Thaksin University, Thailand, and now PIJF, UPSI might well be getting a taste for the adulation of live audiences that appreciate its polished, rollicking big band sound.

Only time will tell just many of these young musicians, aged between twenty and twenty three, will go on to form jazz bands of their own—or any other kind of genre for that matter—but in UPSI they have a wonderful learning environment. And in PIJF, like many other bands this year and in years gone by, they have a champion that provides them a platform to strut their stuff and perhaps ignite their dreams.

Day Three

Sunrise@Tropical Spice Garden

A popular feature of the PIJF in recent editions has been the 7am concerts/workshops in the Tropical Spice Garden, an award-winning, landscaped forest space that's home to over five hundred examples of tropical flora and fauna—edible, poisonous hallucinogenic, medicinal and visually stunning.

This year, a record number of people rose pre-dawn and took a short bus or taxi ride to the Tropical Spice Garden and climbed the hundred or so steps with torches to where tea or coffee and honey-and-banana-topped toast took the sting out of the early morning.

There were two singer-songwriters of contrasting styles. First up was Beverly Matujal, originally from Sabah but now Kuala Lumpur-based. Her sweetly sung, finely crafted tunes drew from experiences of love and loss, with a radio-friendly lilt in her vocal delivery coupled with tasteful guitar arrangements. Possessing a lovely voice, and with a natural, charming stage presence, her forthcoming debut EP Echoes should bring this talented singer-songwriter to a wider audience.

Another band with a debut EP due for release was Battle Bloom, a three-piece from Kuala Lumpur. Guitarist Fariz Salleh handled rhythm and lead duties while vocalists Melissa Toh and Dianne Lim carved luminous vocal harmonies, doubling on keyboard as well. Their delightful performance married groove and sophisticated harmonies within neat arrangements and was over just a little too soon. Interesting times ahead for this trio of unique stripe.
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