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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.

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