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Where’s the Jazz??

  • December 24, 2003

By Jerome Kugan

The late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Indeed, music (or any art form for that matter) continues to elude even its wittiest commentators. Even those who write music can only speak credibly of the experience of composing (or playing) music, while the music is left to fend for itself. Notwithstanding attempts at compartmentalizing music according to genre or commending the artistic achievements of certain musicians, music (or any art form for that matter) exists solely to live out its transient transmission and then bow to adoring/snoring applause.

To that end, what can be more banal a question than: what is jazz? True, only a moron would be qualified to ask such a question without drowning in his/her own irrelevance. But I am tempted to ask why on earth would anyone name the Philips International Jazz Festival 2003 a jazz festival if there was so little jazz in it? A con-job? Why the hell not? Malaysians are nothing if not known for their fondness for abusing concepts like… jazz?

Then again, when the average jazz enthusiast only pays RM42 for a ticket to watch so many billed acts, does he/she really have a right to complain? (Did someone forget to mention artistic integrity/pedantry? Whatever.) The nominees are…

THE IDEA OF NORTH, a jazz ‘a capella’ quartet from Australia featuring Nicholas Begbie, Andrew Piper, Naomi Crellin and Patricia Delaney-Brown, were like a lesser Manhattan Transfer sans band. Not only did the ensemble, who had wonderful voices and a tried-and-true repertoire of crowd-pleasing Cole Porter standards and Motown medleys, prove that jazz vocal ensembles, no matter how well-meaning and well-rehearsed, fall into the barbershop quartet formula after two songs, but that such acts become tedious after three. Accomplished but uninspiring.

KRAKATAU, a gamelan-inspired jazz group from Indonesia featuring Dwiki Dharmawan, Prasadja Budidharma, Tri Utami Sari, Mohamad Rudiana, Zainal Arifin and Eddy Parameansyah, wowed the crowd like their volcano namesake, sending out seismic waves across the grass seats. Fusing ethnic and western sonic textures to achieve everything from tribal tech to all-out funk, the group’s gritty and thickly layered sound almost disintegrated into an incoherent mélange were it not couched by Dharmawan’s powerful keening voice. Technically not jazz, but closer to the WOMAD mould, which is not such a bad thing.

CAMELIA, an R&B (yet another frequently abused term) pop singer from Malaysia, had the bad fortune of interpreting well-known standards such as Cry Me A River and Ain’t No Sunshine beyond all acceptable standards of decency. Thank God the band, featuring some familiar faces such as Mac Chew, Steve Thornton and Greg Lyons, drowned her out. Next!

NING BAIZURA, the familiar R&B pop singer from Malaysia slinked onstage and performed yet more covers i.e. Dance With Me, Stardust and The Lady Is A Tramp(oline – ha ha ha). Fortunately for the audience, Ning had the voice and presence to evoke the blistering torch jazz divas of yesteryear (even though her treatment was more on the straightforward side). I would’ve thought that jazz vocalists, which Ning certainly possessed the voicebox and user’s manual to be, would attempt more daring excursions, diving deep and wide, with scat solos to boot. Having been dazzled by Ning’s consummate onstage prowess, however, it didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps Ning’s smoky voice could someday bloom into a jazz instrument. Lots of potential.

SHEILA MAJID I don’t even need to describe. When Malaysia’s own Queen of Jazz (pop jazz, that is) stepped out, everyone rushed towards the stage (which made me wonder if a large part of the audience paid solely to see Sheila), singing along to a mix of what-we-may-call ‘Sheila standards’ i.e. Jelingan Manja, Warna, Sinaran and a surprisingly adept cover of Fly Me To The Moon. While Sheila’s performance leaves no doubt as to the worthiness of her claim to the pop jazz queen status, she is more pop than jazz after all and that still sat uneasy for someone like me who was expecting jazz, jazz, jazz. Perhaps jazz has become so truly irrelevant that it doesn’t matter anymore in what context one uses the word. At any rate, rock on, Sheila!

SILK, a quartet from India featuring Louiz Banks, Shankar Mahadevan, A Sivamani and Sridar Parthsarthy came closest perhaps to capturing the essence of fusion jazz, mixing euphoric karnatic elocutions over simmering jazz chords and healthy percussion overdrive. Mahadevan’s voice soared. Sivamani clowned and went all freaky testdriving his extensive percussion set. Ecstasy encapsulated. If WOMAD had a jazz slot, they would’ve fit right in. But, like Krakatau, these guys seemed a bit out of place at a jazz fest. Never you mind. High scores for attempting to expand the notion of jazz.

ANGGUN, an Indonesian songstress who went to Paris and came back with a handful of pop rock hits. Uninspired set of bland self-penned English pop rock songs, the kind that gets constant radio airplay because the singer has a saucy yet palatable long-straight-hair image. Unimpressed by her lack of attempt to jazz up (or down for that matter). Left midway through the set.

And the award for what was perhaps the most disappointing and deceitful music festivals ever goes to (information withheld). For fear of offending soft-egoed Malaysian organisers who worked so very hard for such a non-event, I, the humourless and unwieldy, have decided to leave the unnamed alone. Forgive me for not having the experience to compare this jazz fest to previous installments, but Diana Krall really bores me to tears. All I want to say now, on humanitarian grounds, is that I hope the next jazz festival would be less insubstantial. By substantial, I don’t mean Michael Bublé.

Published: 24.12.2003 on Kakiseni