The 6th Penang Island Jazz Festival: December 3-6, 2009

Ian Patterson By

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The 6th Penang Island Jazz Festival
Bayview Beach Resort
Penang, Malaysia
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 Hotel—concerts 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.

Hughes (on right) is a talented guitarist, with a tangy attack and unpredictable yet accessible phrasing. Harmonically interesting, his soloing was exciting, and he shadowed Nicolle's horn-like scatting perfectly. . Nicolle for her part loves a ballad, and her heartfelt renditions of Horace Silver's "Lonely Woman" and Lionel Hampton's "Midnight Sun" were both strong and intimate. With an impressive vocal range and a seeming ease while scatting, hitting high notes that delighted the crowd, it is easy to see why Nicolle has three times been voted Australian Jazz Vocalist of the year. A great start to the festival.

The second day was a little light on music. The three hotel venues each hosted fringe concerts, which amounted to three half-hour concerts, falling at the same time of the afternoon in each venue which meant that effectively one and a half hours of music was all that could be caught.

At the G-Hotel lobby the house band played its way through a few easy listening jazz numbers before being joined by vocalist Lisa Theunissen. South African born Theunissen's sensuousness and sensual delivery kick-started the music and warmed the slightly chilly lobby.

This was followed by SynThmPhonNycs, a septet who finished runner-up in the Young Jazz Talent competition the previous day. They ran through a light, calypso-flavored set with the three-pronged saxophone front-line of Lee Shi Wen on tenor, Kam Li Suang on alto and Mohd Yusof on soprano harmonizing nicely and even doing a syncopated Tower of Power routine.

Given that these young musicians took up their respective instruments only six months ago it must have taken some cojones to get up on stage and perform, and their example should inspire others to pick up an instrument and become musicians.

The Ray Cheong Trio from Kuala Lumpar followed and raised the temperature a couple of notches with a powerful bluesy performance which took as its reference points Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz and Robert Cray. Singer/guitarist Cheong (right) possesses a soulful voice and excelled on two John Mayer covers, "Vultures" and "Gravity." His guitar playing was emotive and technically impressive, free in spirit though never straying across the line of self indulgence. Bassist Zaim Zaidee and drummer Ashwin Gobinath provided tight, funky support. This is a talented trio which would enliven much larger stages.

The first full-day program began with a performance of Hawaiian music by the seven-piece Island Palm Beach Boys, especially brought together for the 6th edition of the festival. What might at first seem like an odd inclusion in a jazz festival makes more sense when viewed in terms of the cultural mélange that is Malaysian culture and musical tradition. Malay, Indian, Chinese and European influences have centuries of co-existence here, and at the end of the day the adoption of Hawaiian music in Malaysia is no stranger than the embrace accorded Brazilian bossa nova in America and elsewhere via Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd half a century ago.

The popularity of Hawaiian music in Malaysia had its heyday from the '40s to the '60s, and the musicians on stage were all veterans of the '50s. Walking bass, chugging ukulele, dreamy Hawaiian guitar and the strong vocals of Ruby Rozelles floated over the palm trees in the grounds of the Baywiew. Ballad, Hawaiian blues and tinges of country music were woven together to make for a fairly enchanting opening to the festival proper.

The Buzz Bros Band from Holland plays an original brand of jazz; powerful, lyrical and above all melodic but with a funky edge. Brothers Marnix Busstra and Berthil Busstra founded the band in 2001 and years of touring have honed the band's tight groove. Mid-tempo jazz funk may begin to describe the music but it is more colorful and layered than that. Berthil Busstra's piano playing was impressive and his Fender Rhodes was used to add texture.

Drummer Chris Strik(on right) brushes-only approach to his kit gives the rhythm section, alongside bassist Frans Van Geest, a distinctive feel. There is some strength in Strik's playing, and he delighted the crowd when he discarded the brushes to play with his hands. Perhaps his drum sponsors urged him to do so as he gets through about eighty sets of brushes a year. . Guitarist Marnix Busstra peppered the set with Scofield-esque solos, dripping with funk, and turned his hand to Irish bouzouki on "Little Boy on the Hill," lending a vaguely Indian air to an impressive number of shifting dynamics —ethereal and powerful. Much to the pleasure of the crowd the band played a tender arrangement of a well-know Malaysian children's song and closed a crowd-pleasing set with "Well Done," a tune with a great hook which was a vehicle for Marxi Busstra's sinuous guitar lines.

An impressive number of progressive bands have emerged from Scandinavia in recent years, many of them owing a debt to the sadly defunct Esbjorn Svenssen Trio, as is the case to a certain degree with Norwegian band In the Country. Pianist and leader Morten Qvenlid (below) led the trio through a captivating set which married power and lyricism. Much of the music takes nature as its inspiration; the epic "Whiteout" for example, evoked the stillness and the sense of other worldliness when snowline and horizon become indistinguishable.

Drummer Pal Hausken and upright bassist Roger Arntzen are a wonderful rhythm team and harmonized vocally to beautiful effect on the nostalgic "Can I Come Home Now?" As good as these musicians are individually however, In the Country is very much the sum of its parts. The music unfolded like the soundtrack to an ever-evolving landscape. From snowfield to stellar constellation, In the Country carried the crowd on a musical journey which ended all too soon. Grand, powerful music of great beauty and innovation.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the Penang Island Jazz Festival was the smooth turnaround between sets. With an absolute minimum of fuss the production team managed to prepare the stage for the following band within ten to fifteen minutes. Emcee for the main stage was the charismatic Richard La Faber (right) who has emceed this festival since its first edition in 2004. His knowledge and appreciation of the music is first rate and his humor and gentle cajoling of the crowd to show their appreciation was genuinely entertaining.

One of the most interesting-sounding offers on the festival program was the blending of jazz and Chinese traditional music by Taiwanese band Sizhukong and it did not disappoint. Whether songs composed by Berklee-trained pianist/arranger/leader Yuwen Peng or arrangements of traditional Chinese folk songs, the bringing together of western rhythm section instrumentation with Chinese lead instruments was fascinating to behold. The breezy "Paper Eagle" opened the set and here and on the set closer "Fengyang" a Latin-sounding drive infused the music.


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