Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival, Dec. 11-12, 2009
Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival
Baan Silom, Bangkok.
For two evenings, on the 11-12 December, the center of Bangkok came alive to the sounds of jazz, blues and world rhythms at Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz Festival.
With the likes of Chris Potter's Underground, James Carter, the Gwilym Simcock Trio and Richard Bona lighting up the stylish surroundings of the open air piazza of Baan Silom with a fabulous feast of improvisational music, this was undoubtedly the best jazz festival held in Thailand since the Jazz Royale Festival of 2006. That two-day extravaganza was held to honor King Bhumibhol's sixtieth anniversary on the throne and featured Nancy Wilson and the trios of Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner.
Until the welcome arrival of Niu's 1st Inernational Jazz Festival, the situation for jazz lovers in the kingdom was looking increasingly bleak, with the demise of the Bangkok Jazz Festival and with the continuing downward slide of the Hua Hin Jazz Festival into a celebration of easy listening pop and schmaltz.
Niu's festival founder and director Joachim Schulz has certainly given fans of jazz, blues and world music in Bangkok something to cheer about. With the inestimable collaboration of promoter Mark Bolam of Enlightened Planet who brought half of the acts to the festival, they have between them succeeded in staging a world class music festival of which they can be rightly proud.
When perennial Bangkok favorite Koh Mr. Saxman bounced onto the stage, arm raised in characteristic salute, there were, however, more ushers in attendance than paying public. This must have been a disheartening sight for the festival organizers and the team at Niu's who worked so hard to put together a stunning-looking arena with a magnificent stage draped in curtains bathed in subtly changing lights as its centerpiece.
Given the quality of the music on offer the disappointing attendance for most of the performances simply underlined just how much of a challenge it is for would-be promoters to stage top-quality jazz, blues and world music in Bangkok.
None of this seemed to phase Koh Mr. Saxman, who played his customary energetic set of easy-on-the- ears jazz-funk. Showcasing songs from his new album, his sixth as leader, the music was smoothly melodious, with Koh dovetailing with guitarist Nat.
It was only when special guest and long-time collaborator, trumpeter Steve Cannon joined the band on stage that the music was given real impetus. Sax, trumpet and guitar drove each other on in turn, with Koh and Cannon in particular enjoying some lively sparring.
Koh habitually includes a composition of the much-loved King Bhumibol in his shows and on this occasion his band ran through a swinging version of "Love at Sunset." What began sounding very much like a nostalgia piece from the '40s suddenly shifted in meter and took on a much more modern dynamic, with the band coming together in powerful unison and Cannon carving out a solo with gusto
The set finished with Koh employing atmospheric echo effects on his saxophone before the rest of the band came in to rip up some more energized jazz-funk with closing solos from all.
The first of two notable and contrasting blues sets at Niu's 1st International Bangkok Jazz festival followed, with the duo of Washingtonian Phil Wiggins and New Orleans son Corey Harris creating a little roots magic.
Harmonica ace Wiggins and guitarist/vocalist Harris is a relatively recent pairing; Wiggin's thirty two- year partnership with fellow Washingtonian, guitarist John D. Cephas was only interrupted with the passing of Cephas in February this year , but he seems to have found an equally empathetic new partner in Harris.
Cephas and Wiggins built up a considerable reputation playing Piedmont, or East Coast blues, which borrows heavily from the ragtime tradition. Corey too, has blues roots which run deep, though this show was also steeped in the blues of the Mississippi Delta.
Such was the feeling for the music and the honesty that emanated from the performance that if you closed your eyes the music sounded like a phonograph recording from the '30s or '40salbeit enhanced by the top-notch production courtesy of Jack Sound System.
Harris's voice holds something of the spirit of Muddy Waters, and this was most apparent on a gripping version of Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" which Waters included in his sets.
Songs by Skip James, Sleepy John Estes and Charlie Patton revealed the easy understanding between Wiggins and Harris and their tremendous feel for this most infectious branch of American roots music.
Memorable was the rendition of Son House's "Preacher Blues" which contained the lines: "Gonna' be a Baptist preacher, gonna' join the Baptist church, gonna be a Baptist preacher so I sure don't have to work."