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More Than Just Another Music Festival

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • December 27, 2007
  • 100 Views

By James Lochhead

Two years ago, I wrote a gushing review of the 2nd Penang Island Jazz Festival (PIJF). Sitting under the stars at Batu Ferringhi while listening to some great music for two wonderful evenings was such a treat. At the same time, the seriousness of the festival was very apparent in the way the organisers spoke about it, and ran it.

It was seen as a chance to educate and encourage, and so there were also exhibitions, workshops, and a competition for younger Malaysian jazz talents. This gave the event a depth that was reflected in how the musicians all seemed very happy to participate and the only question — a major one, of course — was; could the festival attract enough audience and sponsors to make it sustainable?

Two years on (I missed last year’s), one can say that this is a festival that is maturing. The organisers have continued to develop the PIJF to more than just a two-evening line-up of musicians. The Jimmy Boyle Young Talent Jazz Competition (JBYTJC) finals were held on the first day of the festival. The next day, there was a fundraising dinner organised with the International Women’s Association (IWA), complete with performances by three of the festival artists.

An excellent line-up

There was the usual excellent line-up of workshops over three days, covering both the practice and theory of jazz. And there was the fringe festival music held over the Friday and weekend afternoons in the lobby of the Bayview Beach Resort.

And who played? Much was made of the PIJF in the run up to it that over 100 acts applied to the organisers. But the organisers were clear about what they wanted; a showcase of Malaysia’s best and young talent alongside other Southeast Asian artists, and a complimentary dose of western musicians. They also wanted to mix more traditional jazz with fusion and experimentation.

These have always been the PIJF’s core aims, and the fact that it continues to attract the kind of musicians it wants is testament of its growing reputation both within Malaysia and abroad. Indeed, seeing the top artistes’ names on the programme a couple of weeks before the event brought on a feeling of anticipation.

A stunningly blue sky all day

Come Saturday evening, the festival was all about a stunningly blue sky all day, mats rolled out on the grass and chilled glasses. The music kicked off promptly with the JBYTJC winners and Sarawak-based trio IMH Sensations. Clearly excited, they set the mood with a carefully arranged Jimmy Boyle song “Chendering” and some upbeat playing, especially from drummer Samuel Moah and pianist Marvin Jong.

Next up was solo acoustic guitarist John Goldie who delivered a virtuosic showcase of styles in his evocative composition “Linhe Fires”, a memorable “Heard it Through the Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye) and an extraordinary “Summer Onions”, which saw Goldie playing “Summertime” (George Gershwin) and “Green Onions” (Booker T. and the MGs) at the same time on the same instrument!

This was followed by a performance by the Louis Soliano Quartet — a fantastic opportunity to see one of the region’s jazz icons in person. A personification of this region’s jazz traditions and talent, Louis led his quartet in some wonderfully articulate playing. Each quartet member contributed some glorious soloing although special plaudits should go to young pianist Tay Cher Siang.

Nothing, of course, could have prepared us for what was to come next; the diminutive and shy Nah Soun Yun took a little time to get going, partly due to some bass sound difficulties, but as she visibly grew more confident alongside her musicians (some of Malaysia’s best) and her audience, there was no stopping her. Her voice has been described as “sweet, sweet clarity” but it was also the sheer audacity of her singing style which mesmerised the audience into a complete hush. Even the wind seemed to still as she teased nuance after nuance from a spine-tingling version of “Besame Mucho”, sung only to the bass of Andy Petersen. As she had earlier told an interviewer: “If I compare (my music) to a painting, the colour is a little bit original, yes.” Spot on.

Nah’s was a hard act to follow as the audience was enraptured well into the next act — by the Possicobilities. This five-member group wove elements of Chinese traditional music with western classical music and jazz. Vocalist Coco Zhao demonstrated his haunting style backed by the band — which comprised Chinese and American musicians — exploring different rhythmic patterns and cross­-pollinations. But it was not until their final number that they really got the crowd going again — a complex arrangement which highlighted violinist Peng Fei’s excellent playing.

To close the evening, on walked Bangkok Connection. Immediately cheeky, with an irrepressible energy, they dived straight into a funked-up version of “Superstition” and goaded the audience to respond. This we gleefully did, captivated by the rhythms and fierce musicianship coming from the stage. As the band took us through such classics as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach), “Streetlights” (Bonnie Raitt), and the aptly chosen “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” (Leo Sayer & Vini Poncia), the audience danced the night away and went home wanting more.

Out for some serious jazz

If Saturday’s programme had been an eclectic scheduling of different traditions and instruments, Sunday’s threw its weight behind Malaysian artistes. This seemed a little odd but it was later explained that these Malaysian artistes were only available on that day.

The evening started with the Filipino Bob Aves Jazz Group (FBAJG) featuring Grace Nono. Their music is actually part of a serious project; a continuous search to fuse Filipino indigenous music (in particular, the kulintangan traditions) with Western jazz. The kulintangan is part of the gong-chime musical culture of Southeast Asia. The FBAJG’s interpretive kulintangan of Tusa Montes blended into Bob Aves’s acoustic Octavina guitar, the more western saxophone of Alvin Cornisto and the transcendental vocals, and movements of Grace Nono. The result was an ambitious and lovingly prepared project.

This feeling of awe was, however, almost immediately wiped away. The inclusion of Leonard Tan in the programme had already raised many eyebrows and those eyebrows must have hit the starry sky as Leonard mimicked, and talked his way through a performance that would have been more appropriate for a “wedding cabaret” than a serious jazz festival. No doubt some of the audience giggled at Leonard’s antics, but (and I mean no disrespect to Leonard’s many and obvious talents) surely his spot could have been filled by a performer more appropriate for the festival.

This was proven once the “serious” music started again. The Anke Helfrich Trio are an instrumental set who draw from Thelonius Monk and post-bop. Yet, the audience were at once responsive; clapping on Anke’s escapades on piano, the shimmering lines of bassist Martin Gjakonovski and the complexity of rhythms produced from drummer Dejan Terzic. Even the post-modern number “The Tower” — with its various turns, twists and meanderings — drew rapturous applause.

What came next was the outstanding talent of Paul Ponnudurai. For those of us who don’t often get to travel across the Causeway, having Paul back on stage was fantastic. He immediately made himself at home, taking us through an array of numbers presented in his inimitable style. Thunderous applause echoed along the shores.

This was followed by a major change of style and pace. The Australian a cappella quartet The Idea of North had performed at the inaugural PIJF and subsequently in Malaysia, and the region. Their music is at once a blend of originality, comedy and classic musicianship. The audience was left in no doubt of their virtuosity as they effortlessly blended folk, jazz, gospel and a lot more into their show. Once again, a major hit.

The final act came in the form of Jose Thomas and Groove Unction. It was a shame that they came on as many of the audience started to wend their way home ready for Monday morning work. But they delivered their brand of jazz rock, easing rather than blasting the crowd out of this year’s festival.

At the end, some of the audience sat for a while on the grass, breathing in the last whispers of the fading notes under the trees, stars and sounds of the beach. How long does a year take to pass? We want more.

Clearly deserving of more support

So what can we make of it all? Jazz (and other music) festivals are becoming the vogue; this year we had the Miri, Genting and Sunrise jazz festivals in addition to existing ones in Malaysia. We had the World Music Festival (which was hugely expensive and hugely rain-affected) in Penang in July. And in March 2008, we will be treated to the first Blues festival in Malaysia.

So where does the PIJF rank in all this? Firstly, it is ahead of the game. World class acts such as Nah Youn Sun, the Louis Soliano Quartet, Paul Ponnudurai are performed alongside workshops, exhibitions, instrument-care sessions and fringe music. This is more than what most other festivals offer.

Second, it delivers on the promise to showcase young talents. The competition may be one aspect of the PIJF that needs to be developed but the very act of inviting younger (Malaysian) talents to perform, especially at the fringe, says a lot.

The PIJF had, in the past, succeeded in “discovering” groups such as the Balinese Saharadja, fusion gambus player Farid Ali, guitarist Roger Wang, and composer­-pianist James Boyle.

As PIJF director and Capricorn Connections managing partner Paul Augustin puts it: “Most of them (the abovementioned artistes) are now highly known in the international circuit. They have been receiving rave reviews ever since their first involvement in the Penang Island Jazz Festival”.

This year the fringe part of the PIJF had Elvira and Friends, (Penang’s) Areca group featuring younger musicians, the Tugu Drum Circle players alongside James Boyle and the Ragged Tigers, Cheong & Friends, and the established Evening Breeze. This proved to be a well-designed programme for developing Malaysian talents.

Thirdly, the PDF is winning a growing number of audiences. This year, some 4,000 people attended the festival. Sunday evening’s show attracted something like 1,500 people. This represents an increase year on year, and has somewhat answered the question I posed two years ago on whether the festival would find enough audience numbers to sustain it. With continued efforts building music appreciation and participation in Penang and elsewhere, and with more sponsorship from the Penang state government, audience numbers should continue to rise.

Penang should be very proud of this festival that has not only taken root but is beginning to flower big time. Organised by a music-dedicated team in Penang, the PIJF is looking at continuous expansion; some cinematography or advanced “know your instrument” sessions next year.

In other words, it is a festival which deserves serious backing both in terms of putting Penang on the world map and in nurturing local musical talent.

First Published: 27.12.2007 on Kakiseni