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Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011

Penang Island Jazz Festival: Penang, Malaysia, Dec 1-4, 2011
Ian Patterson By

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8th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Penang, Malaysia
December 1-4, 2011
For small, independent jazz festivals heavily reliant on private sector sponsorship, it can be a jungle out there. In the case of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, sandwiched between the Straits of Malacca and tropical forest, this is literally true. Monkeys, civet and leopard cats, pangolins, turtles, and a vast assortment of birds, reptiles and amphibians make their home here. Snakes, spiders and scorpions are also indigenous, but so far seem indifferent to the strains of jazz emanating from the festival venue at the Bayview Beach Resort. However, there are signs that the PIJF—celebrating its 8th edition—has perhaps turned a corner and is no longer scrapping for survival. This year, a record number of bands, both local and international, performed on the main stage, and no fewer than five other hotels provided fringe stages, up from last year's four. The program once again boasted an impressive variety of music from artists hailing from Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, Norway, India, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, the UK and America, strengthening the festival's image as a truly international event.

This year was marked, however, by the first appearance of a rare breed, not a slow loris or a flying lemur, but a much stranger, predatory beast altogether—an international media pack. With the growing support of the government, the PIJF was able to invite specialist jazz journalists from New Zealand, Italy, Indonesia, Norway, Canada, Japan, Slovenia and Laos, and jazz festival directors from Japan, Hong Kong and China. In addition to local media, lifestyle/travel magazine journalists and photographers were also invited from Bangkok and Singapore, testament to the island governor's growing recognition of the festival's potential in putting Penang on the map as an international tourist destination. It's an acknowledgment too of the international renown that the Penang Island Jazz festival has garnered in its relatively short existence.

George Town, Penang

The logic is sound. Apart form the beaches, tree-covered hills, and flora and fauna which beguile visitors to the island, Penang is also home to George Town, the vibrant and colorful, UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, thriving Chinese, Indian and Malay communities co-exist harmoniously. The winding back streets are characterized by an architectural diversity which matches its ethnic make-up. Amongst British colonial edifices, Italian buildings perch gracefully, and multicolored, two-toned shop-houses with their famous bamboo-roll blinds proliferate. Elaborate Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques, tea shops, money changers and street eateries rub shoulders.

The smells of delicious hawker food—steaming soups, spicy curries, tropical fruit, and fried rice—blend with the aroma of temple incense. The sounds of Indian bhangra music, the honking of car horns and the bustle of people going about their business provide a pulsating beat to the rhythm of life. A strong sense of the tides of history permeates the brickwork and the different colored faces of this once-famous, spice trading port, now a busy metropolis. Little wonder then, that Penang often features in lists of "places to see before you die."

Chinese temple, Penang

As in previous years, the festival began with a series of concerts at the fringe stages on Thursday and Friday. The established venue of the G-Spot hosted concerts by blues singer Nina Van Horn on Thursday and the Rio Sidik Quartet from Indonesia on Friday, both of whom later performed on the main stage at the Bayview Beach. The innovation this year was the inaugural concert in the Tropical Spice Garden , an idyllic venue carved out of the forest and nestled in the lush green hills overlooking the sea. Visitors to this exotic botanical garden were greeted by monkeys walking the electricity cables, but thankfully these were not of the camera/sunglasses-thieving variety.

Over 500 species of tropical flora, fauna, spices and herbs cover four and a half acres, an area which also houses a cookery school and restaurant with views of the sea. It's well worth taking a guided tour, though signs denote just about every plant, identifying which leaf is medicinal, which leaf is hallucinogenic and which leaf is potentially lethal—essential knowledge for the ill, the adventurous, and those plotting revenge or seeking life's ejector seat. The media pack was none of the above, and followed a path which wound its way up gently through a wall of bamboo, knotted vines and giant ferns to the venue, an open-sided dome bedecked with lights suspended like stars. After a superb meal, courtesy of the cookery school—rich, buttery curries laced with fresh herbs and spices—the concert got underway for a pleasingly full house.

Three Malaysian bands were showcased. The Az Samad Duo blended Samad's acoustic guitar wizardry with Zalila Lee's bubbling percussion. Samad is a well-traveled musician, having performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. Technically impressive, Samad has performed on record and in concert with Texas accordion legend Flaco Jiminez, utilizing the percussive potential of the guitar to great effect, something in the vein of guitarist Andy McKee. However, impressive though Samad's technique undoubtedly was, the pop/world compositions which drew inspiration from Irish and Spanish wells lacked narrative, to a degree. Pianist Thelonious Monk's jazz standard "Blue Monk" and a pretty Malaysian tune suggested that Samad is, for the time being at least, a more accomplished interpreter of songs. The crowd, it has to be said, greeted the performance with warm applause.

From left: Az Samad, Zalila Lee

Next up, vocalist Bihzhu provided one of the few genuinely jazz-flavored performances of the fringe festival. Possessing a strong, sultry voice, Bihzhu displayed an inherent sense of time and imbued swing into a set of mostly originals. Clarinetist David Ling—who stood in with only an hour's notice—deserves credit for some fine playing. The one cover, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones' gorgeous "The Moon is Made of Gold," capped a well received performance and one which earmarked Bihzhu as a potential leading light in Penang's emerging jazz scene. The final act saw established singer/songwriter Liyana Fizi ease her way stylishly through folk and bossa nova-flavored fare. With the falling of heavy rain that had forgotten the monsoon season was over, the charming, stage-savvy Fizi had the crowd singing along to one of her hits as she sounded the final note on an enjoyable evening.

The tent-dome of the Tropical Spice Garden was a wonderful setting for live music, and might make a successful alternative venue to the rather muddy sound of the G-Spot as a place to hold future main festival acts—perhaps supported by up-and-coming local musicians—in the two evenings before the main action of the weekend at the "Jazz by the Beach" stage. The evening also served to underline festival director Paul Agustin's consistent efforts to support and promote local musicians, of whatever stripe.

Tropical Spice Garden

The weekend began in mid-morning with a program entitled Creative Malaysia Showcase, which gave six Malaysian bands/performers the opportunity to impress directors of international jazz festivals from Hong Kong, China and Tokyo as well as music journalists. Penang jazz veteran, keyboardist Wilson Quah's arrangements of self-penned tunes and a Malaysian folk medley impressed, as did fellow Penangite, keyboardist Jimmy Boyle and clarinetist Haman Adnan, for their intuitive interaction and virtuosity. Malaysian stalwarts Aseana Percussion Unit—a.k.a APU— gave the sort of typically rousing performance on Saturday which has seen the ensemble invited to jazz and world music festivals in China, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Borneo and beyond. APU's 30-minute set highlighted the multicultural makeup of the country, with myriad percussion instruments from the four corners of the world, fusing with Asian wind and string instruments in a joyous cacophony. It's set included a swinging version of Puerto Rican trombonist/composer Juan Tizol's "Caravan," led by irrepressible vocalist Mark David.

Aseana Percussion Unit

The only solo performance was the outstanding singer/guitarist Paul Ponnudorai. A reggae version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" opened the performance, and from the get-go his charismatic persona had the crowd in his pocket. Ponnudorai, an effortlessly accomplished acoustic guitarist, has a voice somewhere between that of a seasoned blues singer and a soul god, and possesses vocal alchemy which could turn dross to gold. A triumphant "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jerico"—the mid-19th century spiritual covered by, amongst others, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley and Cassandra Wilson—was followed by another jazz standard, Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer's lovely "These Days of Wine and Roses." A wordless "Tequila" provided some wonderful six-string exhibitionism and no small measure of fun, but the best example of Ponnudoari's ability to recast a tune to his own design was the storming, bluesy rendition of singer Ann Peebles "I Can't Stand the Rain." A hypnotic performance by any standard.

The Island Jazz Forum on Saturday morning brought together jazz experts in frank and open discussion. Rather than focusing on the usual "challenges facing jazz" fare of such panels, the forum chose instead to highlight the positive contribution of jazz within society. All About Jazz's Managing Editor and globe-trotter John Kelman gave the keynote speech, leading to a dialogue between respected jazz journalists Jan Granlie from Norway, Luca Vitali from Italy, Tokyo Jazz Festival Director, Atsuko Yashima, and Hong Kong International Jazz Festival Director, Peter Lee. Kelman set the tone for the discussion, highlighting the inclusiveness of jazz, and citing as an example of jazz's great melting pot the fact that saxophonist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet incorporated Italian opera into his playing. "Jazz," Kelman asserted, "accepts and encourages pan-cultural cross-pollination." Pointing to the example of ECM—a label few know better than Kelman—he described how collaborations between an Iranian oud player, an Iranian percussionist, a Swiss bassist and a German reeds player is absolutely the norm these days. Kelman acknowledged that jazz holds no monopoly on cross-cultural collaborations, but reminded the audience of jazz's prominence in leading the way.

Island Jazz Forum panelists predict great future for PIJF

Vitali stressed the importance of introducing music to children, and struck a chord with all present when he said: "Every festival has to try to work in the community—this is the real mission of the jazz festival." The segment of video presented by Yashima, documenting pianist/composer Bob James' trip to the tsunami-devastated town of Ofunato in Japan, was a moving example of jazz's ability to play an important social role.. By way of introduction, Yashima said: "These people's houses, their instruments and hopes were washed away." James composed a piece of music for tsunami survivors, the Sandpipers Orchestra, and there were more than a few tearful eyes in both the video and the Penang audience when, following the performance, one Sandpiper musician said: "Until today I had no hope, but now I have hope for tomorrow."

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