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