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Penang Island Jazz Festival 2016

Ian Patterson By

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Johanntgen is a musician with a broad vocabulary and one at ease in multiple musical idioms. A top drawer improvising saxophonist and composer, Johanntgen is also an educator and, in her role as Director of SOFIA (Support of Female Improvising Artists), a passionate advocate for women's advancement in music. With six albums to her name, including Henry (Self-Produced, 2016), a vibrant foray into the soul of New Orleans, Johanntgen is a significant and inspiring role model in this day and age. Finc, a multi-instrumentalist, songsmith, producer and owner of the label Don't Ask Why Records, is himself an important conduit for musical expression. Together, as this concert at PIJF demonstrated in spades, Johanntgen and Finc served up an intoxicating, magical brew.

Finc on acoustic guitar and blessed with vocals akin to Dave Matthews, kicked up a storm on the rocking "Half the Man, Twice the Lover," with Johanntgen's probing sax lines an empathetic force. A blues, slow and sultry, provoked a steamy solo from Johanntgen, but whatever the idiom—folksy, country-blues, jazz or rock-inflected vibes—the duo burned with intensity and irresistible chemistry.

Strong songs with catchy vocal and instrumental hooks held space for the unexpected, usually in the form of Johanntgen flying high and free on the wings of Finc's improv-jamming, or suddenly appearing, sax-toting, amongst the crowd. The energy levels rose on the anthemic "Rock This Town Tonight," which bled naturally and emphatically into U2s "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"—with these two, you got the feeling that anything was possible.

Finc turned to bottle-neck slide on the stirring blues number "Rolling Home," the duo flirting energetically with Paul Simon's "Graceland" and Delta bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's Alright Mama" (Elvis Presley's first single). The final note signalled the end of the concert and brought a standing ovation from the crowd. Another three quarters of an hour of Johanntgen and Finc's pulsating roots music wouldn't have gone amiss.

Mathias Heise Quadrillion

A select few musicians with harmonica as their primary instrument hold a place in the jazz hall of fame. Mathias Heise may not be a name familiar to many jazz fans as yet, but the twenty three-year-old Danish harmonica player is a fast-rising star seemingly destined for great things. At the age of twenty, Heise was crowned 2013 Chromatic Harmonica World Champion, since when he has gone on to play with such jazz luminaries as Jeff 'Tain' Watts, Ira Coleman, Niels Lan Doky.

Heise's appropriately titled debut album, Sudden Ascent (Giant Sheep Music, 2015), is an impressive calling card and formed the guts of this PIJF performance. What sets Heise apart from most harmonica players is his style of music. Heise, along with Guitarist Mads Christiansen, electric bassist David Vang and drummer Aksel Stadel Borum plied a form of jazz-fusion, one defined by its melodic and harmonic sensibility and its accessible grooves. Heise's flowing solo on the breezy "Muesli Man" set the bar high from the outset, and whilst the set was peppered with virtuosos displays from all, the strong compositions and the group cohesion was most striking.

Heise switched between piano and harmonica on the slower "Damned Good Coffee," the former setting the pace and tone, the latter supplying the narrative—lyrical and tender. Vang followed suit as Heise maintained a repeating piano motif on this atmospheric ballad. A feel-good, disco-friendly funk number followed, featuring a terrific, singing synthesizer solo from the leader. "Cliffhanger," from the band's forthcoming album, saw Heise switch back and forth between electric piano and synthesizer, his beguiling, bluesy runs at the heart of a powerful track that evoked latter-day Weather Report.

Mathias Heise Quadrillion's fine performance at PIJF demonstrated that jazz-fusion can be accessible and ambitious at the same time. A band seemingly going places.

Vladimir Cetkar Trio

The honor and responsibility of closing PIJF 2016 fell to the Vladimir Cetkar Trio. It can be no easy task to come on stage after so much great music, with audience expectations surely raised, and in some respects, the trio's easy-listening pop, funk and disco-influenced jazz was a little anti-climactic. Cetkar impressed on guitar—George Benson being an obvious influence—and drummer Benno Sattler and bassist Marcus Ho kept steady time, but there was a lack of spark, a lack of intensity in 1970's disco and pop-inspired tunes like the vocal "Heavenly," "Lucky Pair" and "Born for the Screen."

The final track, "All For You," an up-tempo danceable number, included a ludicrously fast scat-like singalong that was almost impossible to execute while dancing. Or while just sitting for that matter. This trio might have gone down better at the start of the evening, but as a festival closer it lacked the wow factor to send the crowd away on a high.

Wrap-up

As ever, PIJF served up two days of great music on the main stage, with an eclectic range of jazz and jazz-related music. The ever-popular workshops and panel discussions proved both entertaining and enlightening. The late-night jam sessions were great social and music get-togethers, with the first night staggering on until 7am the following morning. Nobody who went the full distance that night, needless to say, made it to the Tropical Spice Garden at 7am, a special venue and a special gig that was a highlight of PIJF 2016.

The PIJF is now a teenager and a pretty well balanced one at that. Self-confident yet open-minded, it has won plenty of friends and admirers. There is there feeling that there's nothing much wrong with PIJF, and if it ain't broke why fix it? It would be nice, however, to see larger crowds embracing the great music and soaking up the friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

Perhaps audience development is the one area that PIJF can make gains in, and with 2017 designated Visit Penang Year by the tourism authority, it may be a good opportunity to seize. Whether that simply means promoting more jazz-related gigs year round, or whether it's also a question of adapting better marketing strategy it's difficult to know. Perhaps PIJF 2017 will reveal some of the answers.

What's certain, however, is that PIJF 2017 will deliver the goods musically, as the festival has always done, cementing its position even further as one of the premier cultural events in the Malaysian arts calendar and as one of the best jazz festivals in South East Asia.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Lee

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