Penang Island Jazz Festival: Malaysia, December 2-5, 2010
Among the fringe highlights were: slap bassist Andy Peterson, a veteran of the Malaysian music scene who displayed outstanding technique; bluesman Raggy and the Raggy project, who explored country-tinged blues with a raw energy; the Aseana Percussion Unit, which rocked the crowd at the Hard Rock Hotel with its world fusion percussive extravaganza; and fine vocal performances, coming from Rozz, the duo of Clair V. Rozells and Allan G Murillon, and Dasha Logan, who fronted Ocean Of Fire, a progressive group who mix up genres in exuberant style with fine individual and group playing. What was lacking on the fringe stages however was jazz, though perhaps the incubators of future small jazz ensembles in Penang will be the big bands who performed in the inaugural Big Band program.
On Saturday, December 4, two big bands played for a sizeable crowd in the Bayview Hotel Ballroom. First up was the PFS Jazz Jam Crew, the youngest of the four big bands, all of whose members are at secondary school. Formed in 2007, its young members gave an impressive performance with bassist Daniel Desman Annuar and drummer Vinod al Elangovan standing out. The second band, the Northern Jazz Ensemble was also formed in '07 with the aim of developing improvisatory skills and promoting mainstream jazz to a public which has little exposure to this music. With members ranging in age from 12 to 60, the band was ably led by Penang jazz stalwart, pianist Jerome Quah, who has been instrumental in bringing this ensemble to the festival, and indeed, for promoting jazz in general in Penang, through his teaching, as well as his advocacy through the active Penang Jazz Community.
Of real note, in a polished performance, was 12 year-old saxophonist Vince De Leon, whose natural flowing style and confident voicing was a revelation. Amazingly, for one so young, he was able to hold his own in the afterhours jam session, alongside saxophonists three or four times his agedefinitely a name to watch out for in the future.
The next day saw two more bands strut their stuff on the Ballroom stage; the Jeep Jazz Big Band in actual fact an eight-piece led by pianist Razif "Jeep" Mohammad, played a swinging set with two trumpets, trombone, sax and percussion creating rich harmonies. Prior to the performance, "Jeep"who studied with pianist/composer/arranger Claude Bollinggave a fascinating workshop on boogie woogie piano. In addition to demonstrating the mechanics of his own skills he also showed videos of masters of the genre such as Albert Hammonds, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. Arguably, the most impressive of the four big bands was the UPSI Big Band, from the Sultan Idris University of Education. This seventeen-piece band, led by Zamus bin Hashim, played blues as convincingly as it swung, and vocalist Audrey Juing made a great impression on the audience.
There couldn't have been a bigger contrast between the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra who opened the Jazz By The Beach Stage program and the second act, Brazilian guitarist/composer and percussionist, Celso Machado. Despite having crisscrossed the globe countless times in a career spanning forty years, this was Machado's first time performing in Penang. His style draws not only from Brazil's myriad folk forms but from the rhythms of Africa and the Middle East as well as from classical guitar. In fact, Machado leads classical guitar ensembles from quartets up to octets in his adopted home of Canada and his command of his instrument is total. Throughout the performance he executed dazzling runs up and down the frets, detuning strings along the way and demonstrating the dual influence of classical and folk forms simultaneously.
Machado's palms, finger tips and knuckles exploited the percussive possibilities of his guitar and he used a bottle of water to great effect, sipping a little to adjust the pitch of the voice that he coaxed from it by tapping its base. With his vocal chords and mouth he reproduced the driving sound of the Brazilian qweeka and sang konnakol rhythms whilst accompanying himself on various-sized tambors, all at great speed. Flute and tambor then combined with Machado tapping out rhythm on the tambor with the end of the flute, whilst playing rapid lines on the wind instrument. More than a one-man band, Machado is the carnival come to town.