KK Jazz Festival 2012: Days 1 and 2. What A Wonderful World

Day 1

  • SIA Jammers – Malaysia
  • 6ixband – Malaysia
  • SIA Funkyard – Malaysia
  • Rimba – Malaysia
  • Amir Yussof Acoustic Project – Malaysia
  • Juwita Suwito – Malaysia
  • Raisa – Jakarta, Indonesia

Day 2

  • Asif & Rene Jazz Band – Malaysia
  • UMS Big Band – Malaysia
  • Winnie Ho – Malaysia
  • Roger Wang Trio – Malaysia
  • Johnny Rodgers Band – U.S.
  • The Rio Sidik Quintet – Bali, Indonesia

It’s hard to believe that the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival is held on the tennis courts of Sutera Harbour Resort. There are covered chairs and tables, it’s a plush, upmarket and intimate setting.

Co-Organising Chairman Roger Wang [SPArKS] said: “After six years, we’re hoping we’ve got the mix right now. This year, we have some tables, some rows of seats, but there’s space to walk around. We’ve been slowly trying to move the audience mind set, away from a seated concert to a real festival where it’s like a party.”

Johnny Rodgers Band drummer Danny Mallon said it was big space, yet it managed to have the intimacy of a nightclub. Johnny Rodgers himself noted variety, “Up on the sides, it’s like being in the bleachers of a baseball stadium, and you get the view of the whole festival. But sitting down at the tables it’s like being in a club in New York.”

Jazz is all about improvisation and performing “on the fly”. But the musicians are not the only ones who have to work like that. Sound engineer Stephen Lim said, “Live music means when the musicians do their sound checks, there’s no crowd, there’s no vibe. Once the whole thing starts for real, with the lights, the crowd, the settings will be different again.”

It was the same for Lighting Engineer Richard Heng. “There are no minus-1s [backing tracks] with jazz, so you cannot make preparations earlier. You have to listen to the music live, and within five seconds or less decide what you want to do.”

The festival opened up Day One with the three winners from the KKJF talent search. Roger said there were so many good contestants that they had to pick three winners instead of one!

The six-piece band SIA Jammers played Irish folk songs. It was a great upbeat opening! The keyboardist played a flute voice for that jaunty Irish jig feel.

Next, 6ixband played acoustic guitar, cajon box and tambourine. They had a Spanish rock sound and sang in Malay and English.

SIA Funkyard sounded like their name. The keyboard was great, with modern runs and chord changes. Then I saw who it was; no wonder, Damian Paul. Plus he was playing Mega Boogie’s new Nord Stage piano. What’s not to love? Bass player Aldoreo bin Marunsai is blinding when he rips off his solos, and saxophonist Gavin Lawrence grows in confidence and poise with each year.

The images on the big screens were so clear. Mega Boogie’s Kevin Chang said they were using two EIKI 15,000 ANSI lumens projectors.

Local band Rimba delivered up a rich and potent cocktail of ethnic fusion jazz. With two powerful singers – Christie John aka Bakey and Cha – singing in Kadazan, plus a myriad of talented multi-instrumentalists playing standard and indigenous instruments, this was the real local offering of the festival.

I could see Zai jumping around wildly playing violin. [Read about him playing the gambus]. The all-powerful rhythms were led by James Simon, with Zul on percussion, and soloing on the kulintangan, which are gongs local to the region.

Leading the pack was saxman Felix Samunting; he demanded our attention with the call of his bamboo flute. With long haunting notes filling the air over Sutera Harbour, we could do nothing but pay our respect. Cymbals shimmered, congas pulsed, and Rimba fused the Land Below The Wind with the rest of the world, with songs including Felix’s own compositions ‘Huminodun’ and ‘Paduka’.

Amir Yussof has a deep, smooth voice, perfect for easing an audience into that muted nightclub feel. He sings as if he’s just talking, and his Acoustic Project played understated blues, held together by the percussionist’s cajon, and at times even a big jar. How cool is that? The Project had an incredible lead guitarist named Arab, who took that laid-back blues into a frenzy before pulling back, to the whistling and cheering crowd. When trumpeter Rio Sidik made a guest appearance with the Project, he sought Arab out, and they did trumpet/guitar trades for several minutes, whipping up the crowd so much it was like the festival Finale. It was an excellent and very crowd-pleasing set.

Well, SabahSongs has a jazzer’s heart, and Juwita Suwito stole it the moment she drew breath on the stage of KK Jazz Festival 2012. With her winning smile, and accompanied by absolutely fabulous jazz musicians, this was — for me — the night’s perfect offering.

Juwita’s voice had a maturity way beyond her years: from powerhouse volume to clear and tender pianissimo, she had total control. Her vocal range was wide and she skilfully steered it up and down with the panache of Ella at her happiest. Keyboardist John Dip Silas flew across the keys, while Fly Halizor played his electric bass like an acoustic double bass: he walked his notes around solid and fat.

When Juwita sang Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,’ a man sitting next to me said, “To see her alone, it’s worth the ticket. She’s got the magic of Jazz.”

I couldn’t agree more. This was the quintessential jazz that I love. Juwita Suwito made my jazz night complete.

Beautiful Raisa brought her strong, clear voice and R&B style to the party. She clearly hit all the right buttons with the audience, as happy people got up and danced all over the venue to see out Day One of KKJF.

On Day Two, The Asif & Rene Jazz Duo opened up the evening with gentle jazz standards including ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, ‘Água de Beber’, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘L.O.V.E’.

Rene Barrow has a resonant voice which fit the style well. They added bassist Aldoreo bin Marunsai and Kevin Coma on drums/cajon to deliver a second upbeat set, which included their own original material.

UMS music lecturer Lee Haji Wahid (aka Roslee) said there were 18 students in the UMS Big Band this year, plus two singers, Charlene Petrus Edin and Annabel Tiu. All the songs were rearranged by the students.

“As their assignment last year, I asked them to arrange a Lagu Rakyat [Malay folk song]. It’s equivalent to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ but the Malay version. They reworked them into the big band style. The students are so young, and they have so many fresh ideas that they want to try.”

They played:

  • ‘Bunyi Gitar’ [written by P Ramlee]
  • ‘Chan Mali Chan’
  • ‘Rasa Sayang’ [“It’s usually in A major, but we did it in A minor!” Roslee said happily.]
  • ‘Bahtera Merdeka’. sung by Charlene
  • Sheila Majid’s ‘Sinaran’, sung by UMS music lecturer Annabel
  • ‘Tanak Kampung’, sung by UMS music lecturer Andrew Poninting

Roslee said, “I am very grateful to the organisers, this is a great platform for our students. All my students are Sabahan, they’re very honored to be here, and they’re very talented. I think in the future they will be the cream of Sabah’s music industry, because now they know how to compose, how to record songs, and they have learnt these skills in a more structured way. This will be beneficial for Sabah.”

Winnie Ho performed songs originally sung by Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng [a Chinese music icon in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s] in a jazz idiom. I heard Western jazz explorations, then realised that the lyrics were Mandarin! The juxtaposition was wild. New crossovers!

Winnie is under Pop Pop Music record label in KL, and its founder Leslie Loh said, “A lot of Chinese listeners are used to the Jay Chou kind of music, they’re not used to jazz. Once we identify a listener, we really look after them. We even hand deliver albums, and try and build our relationship with our customers.

“The musicians experiment with jazz instrumentation, but we keep the melody intact. That is very important, because Teresa Teng is all about the melody. You might not think it’s that different, but believe me, if you are an uncle who is used to Dat-da-da-dat! They really feel it’s totally different. We see this as a revolution. In every revolution there are people who will react adversely…”

We talked about Winnie’s great supporting musicians, the WV Trio+1: Tay Cher Siang [piano], AJ [bass], KJ [drums and percussion], Julian Chan [sax].

“We put the musicians in the same spotlight as the singer,” Leslie said. “Usually in Chinese music labels, the focus is all on the vocal, the musicians don’t matter so much because they are all sessionists. In Pop Pop, every musician is a maestro on his own. In non-Chinese reviews of our albums, the writers always note that there are top musicians playing. But this doesn’t happen in Chinese reviews. In Malaysia, we have a lot of top class musicians, and I really want them to share the spotlight with the singers.” [SabahSongs gives the thumbs up!]

The Roger Wang Trio opened up the first of their two sets with Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’. Roger’s usual flashes of brilliance delighted the crowd. Over time they were joined one after the other by singer Juwita Suwito and Joe Ravo of the Johnny Rodgers Band. Sublime Juwita sang ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, with Roger soloing in an introspective groove, followed by ‘My Cherie Amour’. Joe hooked up with the trio for ‘Caravan,’ with him, Roger and bassist Simon Lau all trading solos with fierce glee.

This was the first time I got to see Labuan drummer Peter Lau play, close-up. I could see that Peter is a busy drummer, he’s got plenty of things on the go, but because of the mini-drums he makes specially to accompany Roger, he doesn’t overpower the rest of the band. [Read more about Peter Lau and his drums here]. He had his newest drum set with him. Every drum set Peter makes has some similar aspects [compact, and movable in one go] and something different. So what about this one?

Peter Lau's mini-drum set

“Normally people can’t see the bass drum properly because it’s always at the back of the band, and they can’t see how the beater and the kick pedal move because it’s hiding behind the bass drum! So I thought, why not I come up with something where the audience can see how the pedal and the beater move. I dyed the beater red, so it shows clearly on the stage!”

Peter’s drums are all made from recycled items, and each one is completely unique. He has made ten more drum kits since our first interview in 2010, and he has two more planned in the near term.

Maestros of Americana the Johnny Rodgers Band then leapt onto the stage in an explosion of Dixieland. Based in New York City, singer/pianist Johnny, along with bassist Brian Glassman, guitarist Joe Ravo and drummer Danny Mallon have been together for about ten years, and are now music ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, bringing the whole gamut of American music to different countries around the world.

They took us through the blues, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, and in a lesson on the ‘back beat’ they had us clicking our fingers to ‘It Should Have Been Me (With That Real Fine Chick)’. Johnny turned into a frog and did a fine take on Satchmo, launching into “I see trees of green, red roses too…” The audience screamed and whistled, and Johnny croaked and swigged a bottle of water. “That hurts!” he said.

After a prettier version of ‘What A Wonderful World’, Danny Mallon put down his sticks to stand at the front of the stage and sing eeriely – high notes, two notes at the same time! Bizarre!

“I think 20 whales just beached themselves,” Johnny said afterwards.

Proving he can sing normally, Danny harmonized with Johnny for Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home”. It was all bluesy and smoochy, and guitarist Joe went a bit wild and took his solo right into the stratosphere.

Johnny wailed on his harmonica in ‘Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette’, and pretty much all of Sutera Harbour was up and dancing for ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’.

For ‘Jailhouse Rock’ Roger Wang got on stage! Johnny became The Pelvis, then Joe and Roger pointed their guitars at Johnny in machine-gun fashion, and twanged him full of holes…

Johnny had been given an Akubra hat earlier from someone on Mega Boogie’s table, and he now wore it as they signed out with Randy Newman’s ‘You Can Keep Your Hat On’. They’re awesome musicians, with big talents and big hearts. Good thing we weren’t all wearing Akubras, or we’d have tossed them away along with everything else by the time the JRB had finished with us.

Jazz trumpeter Rio Sidik sent a singular note into our consciousness. Where was he? On stage? No. Heavenly lights searched him out as he walked amidst us like a spirit, his trumpet echoing in waves to make your heart ache. Cymbals shimmered somewhere beyond. After a long and winding soliloquy to the stage, his sidemen – Erik Sondhy [piano], Ito Kurdhi [electric bass], Hairul Umam aka Irul [sax], and Edy Siswanto [drums] – broke the spell.

Saxman Irul unleashed a wild solo after stabbing out an opening melody with Rio. Jumping octaves to the highest notes, this was the freest of jazz.

Johnny Rodgers was sitting with me. He said he loves the sound of the alto sax. “Tenor is ok for the Billie Holiday thing, but for fusion, it’s the alto which has that David Sanborn sound.”

Rio’s solo was frenetic and intense, the pianist Erik Sondhy played beautiful tiny intervals, flawlessly fast, his fingers a blur.

Rio sang Santana’s ‘Make Somebody Happy’, he sang high, bold. He walked into the audience, put his trumpet to his mouth, arched his back and pointed to the sky.

Drummer Edy Siswanto’s solo worked up the crowd; Rio and the band sang Bill Wither’s lean and mean ‘Use Me’. For the encore, the band played ‘Watermelon Man’, and the KK Jazz Festival was hosting a party – the Rio Sidik Quintet’s Brazilian party, as they went out with Tania Maria’s ‘Come With Me’.

How to beat that? Roll on, KKJF 2013.

Stories about KKJF


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