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.
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.
With Japanese drummer Toshi Fujii and Belgian Martijn Vanbuel (pictured left, right side) keeping time and Peng steering the music, there was plenty or room for improvisation from the Chinese instruments. Chihling Chen (on left side) was outstanding on ruan(Chinese lute) and liuqin (Chinese mandolin), embellishing these highly melodic tunes with wonderful technical prowess. Equally impressive were Alex Wu on erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle) and Chihping Huang on xiao (Chinese recorder) and a selection of dizi (Chinese flutes.)
This beautiful music is at once familiar and exotic. The spirit of jazz is very much to the fore in the arrangements and in the improvisation and sits in perfect harmony alongside centuries of Chinese tradition. If Weather Report had come from China they might have sounded something like this. Comparison with the great Zawinul/Shorter fusion group were felt in the rousing set closer, "Fengyang," whose melodic head dissolved into an extended mid section jam which featured great solos from Chen on mandolin and Huang on flute.
Sizhukong has yet to perform outside Asia but it is difficult to imagine audiences in London, Paris or Montreal being any less enthralled by this refreshingly original music than audiences in Shanghai, Seoul, and Penang. An undoubted highlight of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, 2009.
Saturday's strong program continued with German trio Studnitzky. Sebastian Studnitzky (below) is an accomplished pianist and trumpeter and whether playing straight ahead or injecting more modern vibes into the music a keen sense of melody pervades all the compositions.
Supported by Sebastian Merk on drums and Paul Kieber on bass, who drew a rich, deep sound from his upright, Studnitzky gave a great recital of acoustic trio interplay, combining elegance and drive. The set opened with a couple of straight ahead piano trio numbers, including a pretty number based on 17th century Italian composer Scarlatti called "Fugatta" which featured lovely piano lines from the leader.
Saturday night's program was rounded off with the Band of Brothers from neighboring Thailand. Led by the irrepressible figure of Koh Mr. Saxman and featuring Hank the Groove on vocals and Steve Cannon on trumpet, the band played an effervescent set of smooth jazz funk which had plenty of firey improvisation from Koh and Cannon. The show was a big hit with the otherwise quiet crowd who rose to shake their respective booties.
Aside from the concerts on the main stage there were several workshops by a number of the festival bands for those interested in learning a little more about the workings of music. Extremely popular was the by now annual Community Drum Circle led by the Aseana Percussion Unit and the Tugu Drum Circle.
Other notable presentations included the first Penang Island Jazz Festival Jazz Forum and "Stolen Moments," a fascinating glimpse into the jazz photography of renowned international jazz photographer William Ellis.
The Jazz Forum was titled "Jazz and the Creative Economy" and the panelists were Anthanas Gustys: director of Lithuania's famous Vilnius Jazz Festival; Jae Jin In (JJ): director of the Jarasum Jazz Festival in Korea; Peter Lee: director of the Hong Kong Jazz Festival; Henk Van Leeuwen: jazz promoter; Natasha E. Gerold: jazz promoter and head of Buzz Records.
The panelists gave some insight into the promotion of jazz as a social-cultural development tool and its potential in the development of the 'creative economy,' bringing benefits to the local community in both monetary and non-monetary ways.
The audience in attendance were also given a certain amount of insight into the workings of a jazz festival, warts and all. It was sobering to hear the Jarasum director JJ recount how he was forced to sell his house after three editions of the festival to pay off debts incurred. Happily, the festival now draws over 150,000 people annually and is in a financially healthy state.
Anthanus Gustys talked of the necessity to inject young blood into the festivals and all agreed that youth/talent competitions play an important role in fostering the jazz musicians of tomorrow. Other strong themes which developed during the discussion were the role of jazz as a bridge between cultures, and the need for support from the community at large.
Evident among all the panelists was a deep love of jazz and recognition of the benefits of pursing an improvisational form of music as a means to help people develop the habit of thinking outside the box.
Day two on the main stage kicked off with the lively blues of the Charlie Jung Band from South Korea. Jung spent years playing in America and is well versed in the idiom, as were his band mates. Jung is an impressive guitarist and his style lies somewhere between Eric Clapton and Robert Cray, though on the opening number the influence of BB King was evident.
Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" was given the up-tempo Clapton treatment though with a funky edge and featured a fine solo from Sung Gimoon on keyboards, who impressed throughout on piano. Vocalist Park Jae Hong's sometimes less than clear enunciation was compensated by a strong, soulful voice and the energy of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. A fine, high-energy performance won the band a deserved encore.
Technical brilliance and passion in equal measure characterized the performance of veteran Brazilian guitarists Paulo Bellinati and Christina Azuma. After twenty years performing together the musical empathy between the two is pronounced.
Drawing from the deep well of traditional Brazilian styles and with a classical/baroque accent, the two gave a masterly performance. On the opener, Bellinat's 1935 steel string, serenade guitar and Azuma's nylon strings executed complex runs of such syncopation that the two guitars sounded as one. Sitting side by side, the two looked like odd mirror images of each other.
Most of the compositions were penned by Bellinati, save for a delicate interpretation Of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Amparo" from his classic album Stoneflower(CTI, 1970). Two back-to-back waltzes with a beautiful samba inflection paid tribute to Garoto, an important figure at beginning of the bossa nova movement in the '40s and 50's. It was a delight to watch the two animatedly tapping the bodies of their guitars and creating rhythm simply by rubbing the palms of their hands together.
A power cut left the duo in darkness for several minutes but they didn't miss a beat. One suspects that they could play such harmonically complex stuff blindfolded. The stirring "Lun Duo," based on the Afro-Brazilian style Lundu in which lie the origins of all Brazilian rhythms put the seal on a memorable performance and the duo left the stage to warm applause.
Organamix was up next. Organist Jeremy Monteiro, guitarist Andrew Lim and drummer Hong Chanutr Techatana-nan gave a groovy, blues-edged performance inspired by the great Hammond players like Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Richard "Groove" Holmes. However, there is a modern-sounding approach to their music more in line with the organ trio of Joey DeFrancesco, guitarist Ximo Tebar and drummerIdris Muhammad.
The Andrew Lim composition "The Deadline" showed that this Singaporean guitarist is no mean composer either. A tasteful, unflashy solo from Lim was returned with interest by Monteiro. "Soliloquay" had a skipping, almost Brazilian flavor and Monteiro's gothic-horror coda was a reminder of how demonic-sounding the organ can be.
One of the strengths of this trio is their ability to mix it up, altering the tempo of the music. "There is no Greater Love" featured a great shimmering solo from Monteiro followed by Lim, who wove interesting lines around the melody without ever smothering it. Lim is very much of the Grant Green school of guitarists though arguably bluesier.
A wonderful interpretation of Eddie Harris and Les McCann's "Cold Duck Time" featured extended solos drenched in the blues from Lim and Monteiro and closed an entertaining set on a high note. Original Hammond organs may be something of an endangered species, but the clone models these days faithfully reproduce the classic sound, and, in the hands of a top musician like Jeremy Monteiro the legacy of the aforementioned greats is alive and well.
The Dainius Pulauskas (pictured left) Group from Lithuania provided some of the most interesting music and at the same time some of the most challenging jazz for the Penang audience. This six-piece band began life in '94 and all the musicians are veterans of the progressive Lithuanian jazz scene.
Pianist/leader Pulauskas's original compositions boasted interesting arrangements which brought the most out of the group. The three-pronged brass frontline of Valerijus Ramoska on trumpet, Rimantas Brazaitis on tenor and Kestutis Vaiginis on alto and soprano was used as one voice, almost as in a big band, and the impressive Vaiginis enjoyed the lion's share of the soling.
On "Machine Shot" the driving bass of Leonid Sinkarenko and sharp brass riffing laid the foundations for a telling solo from Ramoska on trumpet. Everybody dropped out, leaving soprano as sole voice, joined shortly by dreamy cymbals and washing synth. The music built slowly and inevitably as the brass harmonies reconvened and the composition reached a powerful climax.
When on synth, Pulaskas' sound inhabited a space somewhere between Joe Zawinul and Patrick Moraz. There was more than a hint of 70's progressive rock/fusion about this band, though the modern arrangements and shifting dynamics meant that the music never lost its intensity.
On the final piece of the set tenor saxophonist Brazaitis was able to stretch out, which made for a refreshing change from the near-monopoly on extended soloing enjoyed by Vaiginis. The Dainius Pulauskas Group was arguably the most artistically risky group for festival director Paul Augustin to set before a Malaysian crowd more used to smooth jazz, but the power of the music and the excellent musicianship will no doubt have made an impression on many in the audience.
The Michelle Nicolle Quartet played a relaxed and swinging set, not having to fight over the noise of a closely packed drink-fuelled crowd as they had on Thursday night. This shorter set was no less impressive and Nicolle was on particularly fine form. Nicolle is a highly expressive singer and the highlight of the set was her sublime interpretation of "So in Love."
The Penang Island Jazz Festival 2009 was closed by the Janek Gwizdala Project which ignited the crowd with an exhibition of outstanding musicianship combined with tremendous grooves.
.Driven by bassist Gwizdala and the mesmeric JoJo Mayer (below) on drums, the music was beautiful and quite blistering in its intensity at times. Oli Rockberger won over the crowd with his energetic, imaginative keyboard playing, his hands jumping from the keys as if touching hot coals. His singing was equally captivating on a couple of numbers, particularly on the quite lovely "Never Grow Old."
Although the music was very much about songs and composition, the standard of soloing from all, including Auden Waage on trumpet was jaw-dropping. The aspiring fourteen-year-old drummer beside me in the crowd who had persuaded his mother to drive him the five hours from Kuala Lumpar to see his idol, JoJo Mayer looked ecstatic, but then so did the rest of the crowd.
The Bayview resort's intimate cellar bar hosted a jam session until the wee hours of the morning, and a host of nations took to the stage at any given time, jamming unselfconsciously together, much in keeping with the spirit of cultural diversity of Penang itself.
Hats off to Paul Augustin and his loyal team for staging an outstanding festival in every way. If the festival can secure the continuing support that it merits and maintain the high artistic standard that it has achieved in six short years then the Penang Island Jazz festival will put Malaysia on the map as host to one of the regions very best jazz festivals.
Jerome Quah: Photo # 1-3, 6-7, 10-14
Ian Patterson: Photo # 4, 5, 8, 9