Thursday December 6, 2012
A splash above the rest
By DARYL GOH
Despite the poor weather, last weekend’s Penang Island Jazz Festival drew a lively crowd willing to brave the elements.
CUBAN jazz outfit Estudiantina Ensemble was one of the last acts confirmed to play the Penang Island Jazz Festival 2012 and ironically enough, it was also the last group on the main stage last Sunday at the Bayview Beach Resort in Batu Ferringhi. After two days of incessant rain on the island, which arguably threw the festival out of its groove, it was heartening to witness Estudiantina Ensemble digging deep as it delivered a highly spirited set to end the ninth edition of this festival.
For some fans, nothing could rain on their parade as they stayed the distance.
On stage, this was the Estudiantina Ensemble members playing for their lives and loving it – the vocals in full flight, the guitars strummed with hearty zest, the trumpet blown louder, and the hand percussion cranked up an extra notch. It was well past 11pm on a Sunday and the masses were still kicking up puddles.
On paper, it looked like business as usual for this eight-piece band, but Estudiantina Ensemble frontman and guitarist Ricardo Bekema would be the first to tell you that it was a struggle to give this year’s Penang Island Jazz Festival (PIJF) a fitting send-off.
“The rain was really hard on the festival. It didn’t let up over the weekend. Yet it was amazing to see so many fans still on their feet and staying back until the end to watch us play,” said Bekema, who left the stage with a broad smile and a big wave of appreciation for the good-natured crowd.
It was a job well done for Estudiantina Ensemble, which plays music drawn largely from its traditional Cuban music heritage. In Penang, these chaps truly captured the hearts.
Across the two evenings at the PIJF main stage, there were similar stories to be heard. All 12 acts – local and international – had their work cut out for them as the bad weather threatened to put a damper on the festival. Surprisingly, festivalgoers had the stamina to stick around till the end, while the PIJF also kept to its schedule.
Day one was a sulk as storm clouds loomed above the festival grounds. Despite the downpour, Italian vocal group Mezzotono and Norwegian experimental jazz duo Albatrosh managed to round off inspired sets. Both acts – with totally different music styles – settled themselves nicely on stage and deserved the cheers that followed.
Whether snug under umbrellas or making do with raincoats, the crowd quickly regrouped and stood in the rain. They kept the positive vibrations flowing. “It’s very difficult to concentrate on the music when you are wet, but we’re already at the festival – no point going home. Let’s get behind the musicians on stage,” said Ooi See Bee, a media relations manager, who came up from Kuala Lumpur with a bunch of friends.
The love was two-way at the festival, especially when veteran American jazz diva Madeline Bell connected with the crowd. Be it slow or sultry, she sang the standards with stardust sprinkles.
In truth, Bell remains little known in the wider music circles. But with a cigarette to warm her pipes backstage, this 70-year-old entertainer wasn’t too bothered about rewriting pop history. Her current smooth jazz approach also wasn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste, but what is beyond doubt is this soul veteran can still happily lose herself in the moment. Just let your worries float away, indeed.
Before hitting the stage, folk rock act The Deans came as a fired up choice in the line-up. This was an example of PIJF’s open door music policy.
These young Irish chaps – on their first Asian tour – lifted the rain-sodden vibe at the venue and drew the cheers from the ladies, but arguably, the band’s set never quite reached a boil.
“Diversity can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you make an interesting discovery, sometimes you just go have a drink and wait out for the next act on stage,” said Ishak Osman, a PR consultant from Penang, who admitted he was only keen on the jazz-minded acts in the festival line-up.
“Like all music festivals, you have the purists and casual fans. But I would say the Penang Island Jazz Festival is the boldest when it comes to festival programming in this country,” he added.
Back to the first night, TheArtOfFusion, a band of European musicians led by Chilean-born Rafa Sotomayor, provided a riveting headlining set. With Sotomayor on the Hang (often referred to as Hang drum), this group unleashed the most potent sound to come out of this PIJF and left a lasting impression.
At full blast, this fairly new instrument (invented in Switzerland 12 years ago) underpinned by Afrobeat, dub and soulful jazz is more than capable of tearing up any dance floor ... or even the stage front area of the PIJF.
By the second night, it didn’t really matter if there was mud or not. More important was the audience that came back in the numbers to listen to the festival’s music.
Apart from Estudiantina Ensemble, the final night’s highlights belonged to the solo acts – renowned British guitarist Martin Taylor and newcomer jazz singer Butterscotch.
In terms of solo jazz guitar-based romanticism, the bespectacled Taylor has crafted his own category. Poignant and beautiful, this was a bloke who told his stories through his nimble chords and signature tone. His was a fully realised set at PIJF, spanning significant songs from his catalogue, including his composition Green Lady, which featured in the Andrew Piddington movie The Killing Of John Lennon.
When it came to living out on the edge, the Butterscotch solo performance was something to remember from this fest. Cheeky and charming was her game.
The young jazz musician, who is handy on the guitar and piano, was in her element as she worked the crowd with a set brimming with jazz, soul, hip-hop and beatboxing clever.
Out came the flute quips, trumpet puffs and live scratching in her vocal range. In 45 minutes, she was a livewire of beats powering through the originals and jazz standards. As far as genuine talent is concerned, Butterscotch can also boast a soulful voice that is slowly gaining prominence outside her beatboxing.
For the most part, anyone who enjoyed this exhausting two days of music and rain will agree that they will be back for PIJF’s bumper 10th edition next year.
Not the best of party conditions this time around, certainly, but indisputably those mud-encrusted wellies are a testament to PIJF’s music spread that is still a splash above the rest.