The 6th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Bayview Beach Resort
December 3-6, 2009
Happy birthday to the Penang Island Jazz Festival, six years old this year! Six years may not seem like a lot, but in small jazz festival terms it probably means that the difficult initial years have been successfully negotiated, a festival team established and a reputation built. The Penang Island jazz Festival has ticked these boxes, even though every year is a battle to secure the support and sponsorship necessary to stage the event.
The Penang Island Jazz Festival is held in the grounds of the Bayview Beach Resort, right by the beach. With rolling, tree-covered hills as a backdrop to the main stage and grounds studded with centuries-old tress, the setting is idyllic.
There is a smooth and easy flow about the festival organization, the direct result of the continuity of festival staff over the years. The production team, the refreshingly low-key security team and the backroom staff all maintained a sunny visage and were approachable and affable at all times, contributing greatly to the relaxed atmosphere of the festival.
It's hard to imagine that this festival was ever in danger of sinking. Festival founder and director, Paul Agustin however, remembers the festival's early doubters: "When the Festival was mooted in 2004 many people were skeptical that it would work: Why jazz? Who's going to come? Why Penang? These were some of the questions that were asked. Some even said the Festival would not last beyond its first or second year but the skeptics have been proven wrong.
"The festival has grown from strength to strength, expanded from two to four days, and gone from having one stage to four stages and with many other supporting activities added on with each passing year."
It's not just size that matters. The bar has also been raised in terms of the quality of music on offer, and the Penang Island Jazz Festival is beginning to stand out from other jazz festivals in the Pacific Rim region which often tend to cater to more populist or smoother tastes.
In 2009, Penang Island Jazz Festival is synonymous with good music. Paul Augustin: "In the past people used to ask us who was going to be playing at the festival, but now they just ask when is the festival going to be."
The festival has an international face. Eleven bands from Brazil, Thailand, Lithuania, Norway, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Singapore, Australia, Holland and Malaysia served up a diverse musical menu which underlined how far the roots of jazz have reached and how the music continues to grow and develop.
The first two days of the festival were largely fringe events, a young jazz talent competition, and daytime concerts at the Bayview as well as at the Hardrock Hotel and the G Hotelconcerts which gave exposure to young Malay musicians. The promotion of Malaysian bands is central to the festival's ethos, and Paul Augustin is proud of the fact that exchange programmes have been established with other jazz festivals in South Korea, China and Taiwan.
The first day held only one concert proper, the Michelle Nicolle Quartet from Melbourne, Australia who, in spite of having just jumped off the plane, gave a warm and gutsy performance in the intimate, surroundings of the G Spot bar. With its smoke-filled atmosphere and close seating the venue was a throwback to jazz clubs of yore and was really the perfect setting for late-night music.
Initial sound problems were quickly overcome and Nicolle led her quartet breezily through a set of non-originals which was notable for its eclecticism; alongside the standard Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart and Jerome Kern torch numbers, the set pleasingly included numbers by Tadd Dameron, Horace Silver and Ornette Coleman's "The Blessing."
Not many put lyrics to Ornette Coleman's music, and this typified the personal approach Nicolle takes to these songs, standards included. Her arrangements are personal and rhythmically strong. Real swing and verve was injected into Rogers & Hart's "There's a Little Place," and Cole Porter's "So in Love" sounded freshly minted in Nicolle's hands. This latter turned into an impressive jam, with guitarist Geoff Hughes sculpting Grant Green-like lines with great fluidity and dexterity as the rhythm section of Tom Lee on double bass and Ronny Ferella on drums upped the tempo.