With 18 jazz acts featured across two days on the bank of the Sarawak river in eastern Malaysia, the inaugural edition of the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival 2017 (KWJF) provided a real treat for music lovers! The bands came from across Southeast Asia and the US, with everything from big band and bossa nova to swing and fusion.
Sarawak is already host to the renowned Rainforest World Music Festival (see my coverage of the workshops and jam sessions from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013), as well as the Borneo International Jazz Festival. Asif Ben Pishori, KWJF artistic director, and Mark Justin Silvester, KWJF festival director, hosted daily press briefings between the jazz bands and the media.
From just before sunset to past midnight, the bands performed outdoors to an enthusiastic crowd gathered on the waterfront next to the Grand Margherita Hotel. CDs, festival merchandise and local handicrafts were also on sale along the walkways.
The event was a curtain raiser for the culture festival called ‘What About Kuching.’ The rains mercifully spared the jazz festival, though it poured heavily the next day!
Festival emcee Rene Barrow kicked off the weekend festival by introducing the bands one by one, along with insightful commentary on the story of jazz. Between each performance, he curated a superb set of tracks tracing the growth of jazz and its different types.
The first performance was by Akoustik Connexion from Malaysia, with a set of jazz and R&B. Founded in early 2014, the band is led by singer-pianist Marvin Jong, along with Adriel Enchana (bass) and Adrian Lim (drums). At KWJF, they were joined by Claudia Geres on vocals and Dennis Tan on the violin, with tracks such as ‘I don’t want to miss a thing.’
An unusual jazz song was performed next, in the Iban tribal language of Sarawak by The UKBD Brothers Band. The group was formed in 2015 by the Mayor of Kuching City North, Datuk Haji Abang Abdul Wahap bin Haji Abang Julai. The 10-member band features the mayor himself. The band also played jazz versions of classics such as ‘Where would you be now’ by the Doobie Brothers.
Artistic director Asif Pishori played a brief piano tribute in memory of Sarawak Economic Development Corporation’s former director of tourism and hospitality John Agustin – one of the organisers of the festival, who unfortunately passed away recently.
Ace on bass Andy Peterson from Kuala Lumpur took the stage next with a solo performance, trading off bass riffs to recorded music (his accompanying musicians unfortunately could not make it to the festival). Andy has been performing for over 40 years, and said he was inspired by the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra led by John McLaughlin.
Andy has played extensively across Asia, US and Europe as well, at venues such as Caesar’s Palace, Dolby Theatre Hollywood, The Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena. He has played with music greats such as Billy Cobham, Randy Bernsen (Zawinul Syndicate), Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, David Foster, and others.
Diana Liu from Sarawak took the stage next, accompanied by five musicians including Marcus Young on trombone. Diana is a vocalist, composer and producer in Mandarin Chinese and English, with musical influences from classical, jazz, bosa nova and soul. She was the first runner-up in the 2007 season of Project SuperStar, and has performed at venues such as No Black Tie, Alexis and the Hakka Republic.
Diana’s first album, in Mandarin, ‘Most Beautiful,’ was released in 2009. The second album, Sunny Days, has songs in Mandarin Chinese and English, serving as a cultural bridge. The tracks include ‘Whisper,’ written by Indonesian pianist Idang Rasjidi.
What is a jazz festival without Brazilian sound? Smooth bossa nova and upbeat vocals flowed across the warterfront with the next band, Mellow Motif. The jazz sextet from Thailand has released two albums, spearheaded by vocalist Natasha Patamapongs and pianist Eugene Ang.
They have performed at Hua-Hin International Jazz Festival, Pattaya International Music Festival, Miri International Jazz Festival, International Java Jazz Festival, and China’s Nanjing International Jazz and World Music Festival. They have also been featured at jazz venues in Bangkok such as Saxophone Pub, Brown Sugar Jazz Pub, Jazz Happens Bar, and Mello Yello Jazz More.
Mellow Motif’s latest album, ‘Sabuy Dee’ (2010), includes jazz renditions of Thai favourites such as ‘I Feel Sabuy Dee’ and ‘Tur Moon Rob Chun, Chun Moon Rob Tur’ by songwriter Prapas Cholsaranon.
The audience were then treated to sounds from another era by The Shanghai Sisters, which is actually a band from Malaysia, led by three talented female vocalists: Winnie Ho, Janet Lee and May Mow. They sing in three languages, and feature songs reminiscent of old Shanghai, Malay traditions and jazz classics.
The name for the band was actually suggested by an emcee at one of their corporate performances. Winnie was The Astro Talent Quest Champion in year 2000. May Mow was one of the Top 5 Finalists in 8TV’s 2006 singing competition ‘Superstar.’ Her debut album, ‘Flirtation – Passion – Reflection,’ was released in 2015.
Janet is a cabaret performer of Mandarin music of the 1920s and 1950s, as well as American show hits; she conceptualised ‘The Shanghai Jazz Songbook Tour’ series and the show ‘Shanghai Jazz Redefined.’ At KWJF, the vocalists, all dressed in dazzling red, performed classics like ‘Fever.’
Jazz legend Ernie Watts took the stage next, along with the Jeremy Monteiro Organ Trio. The two musicians have been collaborating since 1987, when they first played at a Hyatt Ballroom concert in Singapore to a full house. Ernie and Jeremy not only share a long and deep musical relationship but are also very close friends, and their strong ties showed through in the talent and affection shown on stage.
Two-time Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts is an American jazz, rhythm and blues saxophonist. Singaporean Jeremy Monteiro is a jazz pianist, singer, composer and music educator. Jeremy produced the Ernie Watts album ‘Stand Up’ in 1995; Ernie’s other albums have been produced Quincy Jones and Don Grusin.
Ernie and Jeremy have jointly composed tracks such as ‘Twilight Waltz’ and ‘Oasis,’ which Ernie recorded on one of his albums. At KWJF, they played ‘Wings of the Dreamer’ and ‘Reaching Up,’ with superb call-and-response interactions between the talented musicians.
Smooth jazz-influenced pop filled the air next, with a six-member band led by young singer Kunto Aji. He was one of the Top 5 vocalists of Indonesian Idol 2008. Born in Yogyakarta, his hit singles include ‘Terlalu Lama Sendiri’ and ‘Pengingat.’ His first album, ‘Generation Y’ was released in 2015.
Kunto has won a string of awards including Breakthrough Artist of the Year, Best Newcomer, and Best Indonesian Song. He had the crowd singing and swaying along to his tunes like ‘Choo Choo Boogie.’ He had a memorable duet with the guitarist, and even jumped into the media pit to get close to his audience during the closing track of the night.
The evening performances of Day Two kicked off with Malaysian pianist Jolynn Chin, born in Sarawak. Her music blends jazz, classical and contemporary music. Her quartet ‘Jazzin it Up with Jolynn’ has performed extensively in Sarawak.
At KWJF, she showcased the work of Russian pianist and composer Vladimir Titov. Her trio also played classics by Dave Brubeck and even ‘Billy Jean,’ as well as an original titled ‘Night Groove.’
The 12-piece Borneo Big Band filled the stage next. Led by Joan Jim, the Malaysian ensemble covers Latin and dance music. It featured trumpeter Jessel Yansalang of Sabah Institute of Art. They performed smooth ballads and swing, perfect for the mood of the late evening.
Bassist Andy Peterson performed another solo set, followed by Baihana from the Philippines, an all-female vocal trio. The talented vocalists are Krina Cayabyab (arranger, musical director and the group’s Soprano 1), Anna Graham (Soprano 2) and Mel Torre (Alto).
Formed in 2008, Baihana is inspired by The Puppini Sisters, The Manhattan Transfer, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and The New York Voices. ‘Baihana’ is the Filipino word for woman, and the lineup includes Karmi Santiago (drums), Junji Llerma (guitar), Jesper Mercado (piano), and Julius Lopez (bass). They have performed across ASEAN in festivals like the World Youth Jazz Festival in Kuala Lumpur.
At KWJF, the vocalists showcased their talent on tracks where they imitated various brass instruments. They sang in Tagalog as well – taking jazz to new Asian frontiers. The band also performed classics by Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, showing superb coordination in tracks like ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).’
Two renowned music pioneers from Asia took the stage next: Lewis Pragasam (Asia Beat) and John Kaizan Neptune (based in Japan). Malaysia’s Lewis Pragasam is the founder and moving spirit of the Asia Beat project, which has been blending Asian and Western music styles since 1979. Ace percussionist Lewis has collaborated with a range of world music artistes.
California native John Kaizan Neptune, now based in Japan, is the ultimate ‘musical bridge’ – he is regarded as a top master of the shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute. At KWJF, he also played morseng and takeda (an hourglass-shaped drum he invented).
The two musicians, accompanied by KL-based percussionists on Indian tabla and mridangam, treated the audience to a melting pot of sounds, covering Asian folk, Indian carnatic and jazz influences. Their closing track was aptly titled ‘West of Somewhere.’
Indonesia’s Sri Hanuraga Trio, with the outstanding vocalist Dira Sugandi, took the stage next. The trio was formed in 2015 at The Freedoms Jazz Festival, and features Sri Hanuraga along with bassist Kevin Yosua and drummer Elfa Zulham. The trio and singer, Zulham’s wife Dira Sugandi first blended contemporary and Indonesian sound at the Museumseferfest Festival in Frankfurt. Their self-titled album was released in 2016.
Indonesia and Malaysia share a common love in music, like brother and sister, the band said at KWJF. “Jazz brings us together in the spirit of togetherness, musical celebration and enjoyment,” said Dira. They played a range of compositions including ‘Kichiki,’ and Dira’s soaring vocals drew loud applause.
Pianist Jeremy Monteiro then took the stage one more time, this time with The Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet featuring Melissa Tham on vocals. The audience was treated to a superb performance by Hong Kong jazz guitarist Eugene Pao, Philippine saxophonist Tots Tolentino, and Thai drummer Hong Chanutr Techatana-nan.
Melissa Tham’s album ‘Falling in Love Again’ was released on Jazznote Records in 2015. Melissa has also performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival in 2014. At KWJF, they played tracks like Jimmy Cobb’s ‘Say, Little Mama, Say.’
Another Asian jazz legend then performed at KWJF: Sheila Majid, widely regarded as Malaysia’s Queen of Jazz. Though she is now 52 years old, you would never have guessed it from her youthful appearance and soulful performance.
She is best known for her 1986 song, ‘Sinaran’ and has been performing jazz and R&B for over 30 years. Her albums include ‘Dimensi Baru,’ ‘Emosi’ (Emotion), Warna, ‘Legenda’, ‘Ku Mohon’ and ‘Cinta Kita’and ‘Boneka.’ She won the Indonesia BASF Award for Best Female Artiste in R&B category in 1987, never before done by a non-Indonesian.
At KWJF, Sheila performed solo, to recorded music. “Next time I will play with a band,” she said, to enthusiastic applause. She performed a range of hits like ‘Legenda,’ with the audience singing along loudly.
Sheila Majid was followed by the eight piece band Abdul & The Coffee Theory from Indonesia. The vocalist-composer Tengku Muhamad Abdulah Amin Ashari chose the name Abdul & The Coffee Theory as his identity, reflecting the spirit of hanging out with friends over coffee. At KWJF, the band played a smooth range of jazzy pop and folk music.
One of the most creative bands of the festival wrapped up the night’s lineup: guitar virtuoso Balawan ‘Magic Fingers’ from Bali. He wowed the audience with his unique tapping style on the double-neck guitar, performed along with traditional Balinese gamelan instruments.
Balawan listened to gamelan since birth, taught himself to play guitar at age eight, and joined his first band at 14. He started off with rock but moved on to study jazz at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney. In 1997, he formed a band called Batuan Ethnic Fusion.
Jazz and world music fused in a dynamic and entertaining way in his KWJF set. The band’s energetic drummer was all of 12 years old. “Young people don’t get sleepy so easily,” joked Balawan. He played a range of tracks inspired by Stanley Jordan and Al Jarreau. One of the tracks featured traditional Balinese kecak or monkey chant.
Balawan has performed his ‘touch tapping’ style across the region and in Europe, in festivals such as ‘East Meet West Gitarren Festival’ in Edekoben, Germany and ‘Other Minds Festival’ in San Francisco.
All the musicians of the festival came together for the grand finale, featuring a collaborative though joyfully noisy jam led by Nik Azmi, founder of the World Youth Jazz Festival (WYJF) in Malaysia. They played tributes to the greats of jazz such as George Gershwin and Al Jarreau.
The audience roundly cheered the musicians and festival’s organisers and volunteers, and the jam session carried on in the bar of the Grand Margherita Hotel till early the next morning. We look forward to the next edition of the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival already, on September 28-30, 2018!
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Written and photographed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com .