Jazz – An Act of Liberation

loading The Cape Jazz Band.

No, jazz is not pretentious. It is good music – wildly good music. Experience it yourself at the Borneo Jazz Festival.

Cabocuba Jazz.

It is the sort of day you don’t want to end. The casuarina trees are dark against the cobalt blue of dusk, as is the Miri skyline. P. Ramlee’s “Getaran Jiwa” – the jazzed up version – fills the breezy air. Finger-plucked guitar strings and a sultry tempo alter and at the same time do immense justice to the song most Malaysians would be familiar with.

The sun finally dips below the sea, and the wells of the offshore oil platforms fire up orange against the black. It is all too soon – night enters, dazzling lights flood the stage and the music becomes heady. Let there be jazz.

Now in its 12th year, the Borneo Jazz Festival (BJF) held on May 12-13 was an intimate, relaxing affair. Families picnic at the sprawling grounds of the venue, ParkCity Everly Hotel in Miri, enjoying local delicacies such as umai and tapioca leaves and the compulsory burgers and hot dogs on sale beneath the gazebos that line the side of the performance area.

But wait, hold on – picnic and jazz? Shouldn’t jazz only be heard inside performance halls and other such hoity-toity places? And, isn’t jazz something only rich, older people listen to and play? What are these teenagers and kids doing here – and more importantly, what are those kids up on stage doing?

Wong Jenn Hwan of the Fluoroscent Collective.

Pascal Danaë of Guadeloupean- French blues band Delgres.

“Jazz is not rich man’s music; it’s everywhere; it has to be humble,” says Idang Rasjidi, doyen of the Indonesian jazz scene who has spent the past 43 years immersed in the music. His jazz advocacy means going to rural Indonesian villages and spreading the joy and freedom of the genre to the ingenious youngsters there – ingenious because what they lack financially they make up for in creativity, piecing together new musical instruments from material around them, such as carving a saxophone from wood.

Idang breaks down the learning process, making it easier for the kids to understand. Instead of using musical language, he simplifies things – if anything, to pique their interest before introducing them to terminology. “I never went to music school; I studied music with my ear,” says Idang humbly. He speaks in a musical way that is hard to describe – interjected with beats as he emphasises certain feelings. “My dad was a pilot in Indonesia and he brought back LPs of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk… that was the very first time I learned about jazz.

“I come from the second generation of jazz musicians in my country; before, nobody knew much jazz in Indonesia. We, the elders, have to come down and talk to the youths, to stimulate and motivate them about jazz. They have to enjoy it first. So, from kampung to kampung, we brought jazz music. Now, in Indonesia, we have 64 jazz events and festivals every year.”

More than the music, jazz festivals are also platforms for young and budding musicians to showcase their talents. “I always believe that for musicians to fully give and serve the music, there has to be a suitable environment for them to do that, and that’s why I pushed to bring the band to BJF,” says Wong Jenn Hwan, leader of the Fluoroscent Collective, a group of young musicians from all over the world who are graduates or undergraduates of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the US. The energy from their set is electrifying, and their compositions are as colourful as they are unique: “There’s an original tune from every player in the band,” Wong discloses. “Jazz allows us to be very honest with ourselves – it gives us a conduit to learn about different cultures. It’s all about the human connection; you never stop learning.”

Raphaël Gouthiere of Delgres on the sousaphone.

Dina Medina of Cabocuba Jazz.

The jazz that we know today often incorporates elements of world music. Nils Fischer from Holland’s Cabocuba Jazz, has this to say: “In Holland, we are a combination of many cultures, so we mix music from the Caribbean, the ex-Dutch colonies, South America, Suriname, even from India. We (Cabocuba Jazz members) are all based in Holland but we come from different countries. This adds an extra element to the music.”

Apart from the cultural melange that exists in contemporary jazz music, the genre is evolving as well like it always has. “The definition of what ‘jazz’ is, is becoming increasingly expansive,” says Laila Biali, a Canadian jazz singer and pianist who, coincidentally, has performed on our shores before, during 2014’s Penang Island Jazz Festival. “Some people are excited about that; others perhaps less so. I see it as a very good thing that other genres are being mixed with jazz.

“When you think of a (jazz ensemble) group like Snarky Puppy, they are perhaps a little bit more on the fusion side, but it’s really groove-oriented music. A lot of the staples that make jazz what it is are there: improvisation is a big component; the interaction of the band members; the spontaneity of the music. (These) bands are becoming a gateway for the younger generation to discover jazz because the music is fun. It’s reaching people. I think jazz is going through a renaissance as a result, especially with younger kids.”

According to Pascal Danaë of Guadeloupean-French blues band Delgres, “In France, like in most parts of the world, young kids have a choice because of the internet; everything is available, and for some reason, they choose to express themselves with jazz. Because they are exposed to so many different kinds of music, it brings an element of diversity to jazz. They are not afraid to mix everything: they use loops and they play trip hop, Cuban music, Brazilian music – whatever, you name it. They use all the tools and they have no boundaries. It’s great for our generation to be exposed to that freedom as well. It’s another dimension of jazz, that universality.”

So when BJF decided to hold its first outreach programme in 2016, it was targeted at local musicians and was intended to provide free tutelage for music enthusiasts who were passionate about learning how to play jazz. A keyboard/piano workshop was held to wide success, and this year it was expanded to four sessions one of which saw a room full of teenagers blowing away on brass instruments, led by musicians Michael Simon and Terry Hsieh from the Michael Simon Asian Connection. (That evening, they played a wickedly tight set.) Another was taught by James Boyle, son of the late Jimmy Boyle, Penang’s jazz legend.

“The workshops and tutorials are new,” says Yeoh Jun Lin, the artistic director of both BJF and the Rainforest World Music Festival – and a Penangite, to boot. “I think it’s worked out to be very productive and popular. Even if the attendees do not become professional or even amateur musicians, this training provides education and exposure – both of them good things. Even if one person learns just one thing, it’s already something more than what they knew yesterday. And to me, that’s a success already.”

Music – and jazz – is a long, ongoing process requiring hours and hours of dedication and practise; one simply never stops learning. By providing the outreach programmes to the public for free, doors are opened. At the same time, Yeoh is grounded by reality: “Success doesn’t have to be somebody receiving a Grammy Award – we’re not concerned about the roof; we build the foundations first. Without a good foundation, you can decorate the roof like crazy but it’s going to fall down. This is what we’re doing: we’re down-to-earth, real life. We’re not up there with the roof. If we have the foundation, the roof will take care of itself. This is what we want.”

While the groundwork is being laid, the music entertains. Jazz, to this writer, is a harmonic relationship between melody, rhythm and chords – yet contained within a highly complex set of rules and arrangements. It is simply – for the lack of a better word – orgasmic, when done right. As Idang sums it up, “It’s a universal language. Jazz is a barometer of freedom.

Julia "Bubba" Tan loves jazz and is a drummer girl at heart.

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