Penang Island Jazz Festival’s 10th anniversary edition reminded the masses of the appeal of an open-minded music policy.
IT’S open to debate if a music festival culture truly exists here in Malaysia. But locally-produced success stories, like Rainforest World Music Festival, Rock The World and Urbanscapes might just be the proof of the pudding. Penang Island Jazz Festival (PIJF) chalked its 10th instalment over the past weekend, done against the tide of apathy towards the genre. PIJF barely made it out of the woods in its early years with its poor financial recoup. Today, though, organiser Capricorn Connection stands tall in showing how little money with plenty of heart can get some serious mileage.
It’s this undying faith through the years that’s kept PIJF’s wheels firmly fastened to the track, deservingly earning it an appreciative audience.
The festival has been graced by the likes of Jojo Mayer, Ulf Wakenius, Tommy Emmanuel, Martin Taylor and Steve Hackett (formerly of Genesis) ... all big names in the festival circuit.
For its 10th anniversary edition, the country’s premier jazz fest pulled out all the stops by throwing in a living legend, one of the five best guitarists in the world and a homegrown talent who’s taken her chance at graduating from fringe stages to the mainstage at Bayview Hotel, among her many new milestones.
American Idol runner up from Season 10, Casey Abrams ignited the festivities with a performance two days beforehand that extended beyond the borders of the musicianship he displayed during the reality talent show. He had Liyana Fizi for company as his opening act, though the jazzy pop darling also got her kicks in a first for PIJF, the Sunrise@TSG shows, a breakfast showcase at the scenic The Spice Garden at Batu Ferringhi, with her foil, sax man Eizaz Azhar.
If the mainstage events across Saturday and Sunday were the main course, the Creative Malaysia Fringe (spread out across a few venues in the vicinity) stages offered delectable appetisers to the main course. Acts came from all across the country, even as far as Kota Kinabalu, waiting for their turn to tune the listening audience to their sound and style.
Bands like FAZZ and JUNK, both permutations of jazz/funk hybrids, gave very good accounts of themselves, confirming that trad and fusion jazz were alive and well in the hands of these young musicians.
Elsewhere, Hameer Zawawi’s operatic, fantasy folk had more than a few mouths agape as he ploughed through a selection of songs from his eight-song debut album National Fantasy, the title track and Zombie Town choice cuts in a stunning display of voice and guitar.
Momain Blues, a four-piece KK outfit replete with Blues Brothers-approved garb, rattled and rolled with a groovy swagger. Woven into a bunch of solid originals – like Pandai-pandai and Mari Sini – were Chicago blues prime cuts from Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters. It may not have been what the doctor ordered for some, but good music easily finds a home.
Raising the curtain and setting the bar at the main stage on Saturday was Penang-born singer Bizhu, the voice behind the charming The Heart Way. Cutting her teeth at the festival as part of Rhapsody in 2006 seems like such a long time ago, but she and her band were more than par for the course at the main stage, entertaining the audience with a steady stream of sweet melodies and singalongs, though something was visibly amiss in the band dynamic on a night of opportunities.
Berlin-based duo Michael Schiefel and Carsten Daerr flexing its classical music muscle proved that PIJF has kept its arms open in welcoming anything genuinely unique and entertaining. Schiefel and Daerr were right on the money in both respects.
While Daerr’s tendonitis-inducing runs on the piano were staggering, it was Schiefel’s extraordinary vocalising that was the jewel in the crown, almost defying words in its style of delivery. And the sonics were equalled by the visual of him imitating the physical process of playing the violin, cello, keyboard, double bass ... not unsimilar to scatting. Simply put, picture an air guitarist, and imagine those instruments, instead.
Lists really count for little in real-world application, but it certainly meant for something that in 2003, Okan Ersan was voted in an esteemed list as one of the top five best guitarists for the year by Britain’s Guitarist magazine – the guitarist’s amalgam of middle Eastern and Western flavours made for a heady mix at the fest. The northern Cyprus musician was in complete sync with his Turkish bandmates, juggling complex arrangements and blurring time signatures at the ease of snapping fingers. Just as the art rock flag began to flutter wildly in the wind, the gathered audience at Bayview Beach Resort’s garden were quickly reminded that they were there particularly for vintage-schooled jazz. When your surname reads Cole, expectations go through the roof, but at 82, nothing fazes Freddy Cole and his quartet. Marketing for the festival had clearly played its part, as youthful girls, young enough to be his great grand children, in some cases, ran up to the stage to catch the living legend on their cameras and smart phones.
And the gems from jazz’s golden era flowed, much to the delight of the uncles and aunties ... and their brood. Of course, it took Route 66 to place all of the audience squarely in familiar territory. This was jazz as it was first written, the way it created a language all its own and wriggled its way into popular music’s consciousness. Freddy might be the less illustrious Cole, but echoes of his older brother (Nat King Cole) as he sang in the lower registers must have sent a tingle down the spine of fans of classic jazz.
The second night started off just as promisingly with South Korean outfit Vinalog spreading its swings in an exercise of near-psychotic folk intertwined with acid jazz and electronica. It was good stuff, but that damn taepyeongso (Korean reed instrument) was played at ear-splitting volume, which really was a shame because it rendered the following act, Norway’s Hedvig Mollestad Trio, noisy for no good reason.
Sure, it was a power trio that gave credence to the term power, and naturally, it was loud, but importantly, it was highly tasteful stuff. From the casual conversation overheard at the festival grounds, the uninitiated seemed surprised at the source of Hedvig Mollestad Trio’s cranium-crushing riffage, but Scandinavia has always excelled in this area, the region’s metal roots running deep for so long now.
The band’s focal point, bandleader Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, had her performance plagued by technical gremlins in the guise of a dodgy guitar cable, but the three-piece comprises consummate musicians, attested to when even in the delirium of panic, the band held its composure without skipping a beat as Thomassen tried to get her guitar going. This wasn’t fare for the faint-hearted, but there was no way to doubt the power and fury on display. To get your socks rocked off, check out this trio in a live context.
The festival regained its equilibrium with the warm sounds of songstress Alison Burns and guitar guru Martin Taylor. While the Burns/Taylor duets were greeted with courteous applause, the euphoric responses were reserved for Taylor’s solo material, with Truth and Down At Kokomo’s lathering up the audience into a bubbly delight. Taylor has clearly become a fan favourite with the PIJF audience.
Party people rejoiced when Zimbabwe-born and London-raised Eska hit the stage with her band in tow, engaging the boys and girls with a sunshiny vibe and balmy tunes. Like few others at the fest, Eska blurred the lines between jazz, funk and pop, and to give it a stamp all her own, threw in her African heritage for good measure.
She had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand midway through the set, but really had everyone in raptures when she “composed” a song impromptu.
Programming is everything at a music festival. The dynamics of the show is what keeps the audience either riveted to the stage, or heading to the concession stalls for spicy wedges and cider.
On both days, the crowd were nicely seated on the grass and plastic chairs (only until it kicked up a notch later when everyone stood and swung those hips). On the first day it was Holland’s Jazz Connection that put in a barnstorming set to end the night, but PIJF’s 10th anniversary went out on a whimper with JazzKamikaze.
Looking like it was a poor blueprint of aesthetics from 1980s hitmaker Spandau Ballet (though the Kemp brothers wrote far better songs), the Scandinavian group’s pop-centred sounds jarred with everything else that had come before. And unlike some of the other acts at the fest, which were heavy on instrumental music, JazzKamikaze had vocal-based songs, some of which were decent, but it came across as too incongruous a mix to warrant a place at PIJF ... definitely not as curtain closer, at least.
The performances aside, workshops were held during the festival. Musicians and industry experts shared their wisdom in dress down settings and more than one musician walked out the door either scratching his head in confusion or wide-eyed in complete comprehension.
A few truths were uncovered during the festival, but none more so than how spicy wedges work best with tartar sauce, not chilli.