What is Jazz? .. the musicians answer me!

ParkCity Everly Hotel
ParkCity Everly Hotel

 

Before I attended the Borneo Jazz Festival  in Miri, Sarawak, (May 2014) I asked “What is Jazz?” and I came to no real answer so said I would ask the performers once I was able to talk to them at the  ParkCity Everly Hotel.

Worldwide, jazz festivals are really popular and the local organisers in Sarawak decided they could not afford to be the same as every other jazz festival so the people selected to come to Malaysian Borneo are all very different creating a small and perfectly formed music festival. This year, by chance, vocals and piano were big in this 2014 event. (Next year is the 10th annual Jazz festival so I expect there will be big celebrations for this milestone)

However, this, in part,  is what some of those performers said in reply to the query ‘what is jazz?’

The crowd-pleasing group was Vocal Sampling, an all-male a cappella group from Cuba . The band is 25 years old and the trip to Miri was part of the celebration. They said Cuba is a very rich musical environment in which both old and young like jazz … but no explanation why their music is jazz … it seems improvisation will be the common denominator answer!

Mario Canonge is a great musician and showman who plays creole jazz with West Indies rhythms. Originally from Martinique he now lives in France  and said”Jazz is just a word. When you improvise you are jazz’.

Anthony Strongpianist and singer, hailed as ‘England’s new jazz superstar’, sings mostly classical jazz and I missed his interview so a few days later, over breakfast at the Royal Mulu Resort I asked him the same ‘what is jazz’ question. He responded with “I’m sure if you Google it there will be heaps of people who have written many theses on the topic!” All true – he went on to say he thought not all jazz was improv; that the term is an umbrella for many forms of the music.  Just like ‘world music’ has no specific musical genre – that there must be 500 different forms of music that comes under the label – and jazz is the same.

YK Band from Indonesia featured jazz with a Borneo flavour and the locals particularly loved this group – who also couldn’t give a simple answer to my question.

Iriaoa Georgian ethno-jazz band said each area had its own ‘folk’ music and all were different … and although they didn’t give me a definition of jazz they said that Georgian music and jazz were sent to space as a part of  ’13 masterpieces.’

Both evenings of the festival concluded with a jam session all the musicians ( inside the hotel) which was certainly improv .. so maybe was ‘really jazz’, while in the Pavillion beside the ‘Stage by the Sea’  DJ Roundhead had a popular Club Set: crowned the ‘Malaysia DJ Champion’ three years in a row he has a 20 year history in the local music industry.

Junk o Func, (with 12 people) grabbed the stage and entertained us with punchy, gospel-influenced vocals and playful, interaction with each other and the audience – who loved them. (I predict they will return!)

So what is jazz .. to me it seems it’s jazz if you say its jazz! So make up your own mind or become one of the thesis-writing uni students and spend years studying the genre.

So, if you love jazz, if you love music, if you would love to laze around the pool (or beach) all day, eat and then experience great jazz at night, the Borneo  Jazz Festival is for you! (repeat daily!)

If it’s World music that you like, Sarawak also hosts a festival which is also by the beach! Rainforest Word Music Festival (#rwmf). I’ll I’ll be at in Kuching, Sarawak in a week for both the Rainforest the Borneo World Expo at the Hilton  – I’m staying at Damai Beach Resort for the RWMF and at the Hilton for the expo … see you there! 🙂

Andy Kho: official photographer
Andy Kho: official photographer at the Borneo Jazz Festival

Longboats, bats and beds in Mulu National Park: Malaysian Borneo

A day in a longboat then sleeping in the best bed I’ve ever slept in was my introduction to the World Heritage  Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

Gunung Mulu World heritage Area
Gunung Mulu World Heritage Area

My adventure started with a 4-wheel-drive trip from Miri (I’d been at the fabulous Borneo Jazz Festival) during which we travelled along back roads, through oil plantations, over potholes in the snake-like, gravel road, over bridges, and on two vehicle ferries  until we reached Marudi some 2 hours later.

We're off
We’re off

Planet Borneo  had arranged an early lunch for us, then, after a safety briefing, we boarded our longboat – home for the next five or six hours – a journey time that’s water level dependent.

A local woman on the boat tells me she did this same trip some 20 years earlier. She and her family were attending the opening of the national park and had gone up the wrong tributary  and spent the night on the boat lost in a side stream! I’m expecting our local boatman to know exactly where he’s going on this curvy watery highway and that we won’t need to get out to push it through any shallow parts.

During the boat trip (on which many of the locals slept!) I saw monkeys on the riverbanks, some small hawk-like birds, the beautiful white herons and a couple of pairs of hornbills. We didn’t get lost, but we did hit a submerged log once, and had motor issues briefly. At our only toilet stop – at a small village – our bags are moved together and covered – it is obvious rain was imminent. I put my camera in its waterproof bag and get my plastic poncho ready – five minutes later its on as the tropical rain hits. We still have over an hour to go and soon we passengers transfer to two smaller boats to cope with the shallower water while our luggage remains in the original traditional longboat.

I’m one of two westerners on board, and because we’re larger, where we sat is vital to the balance! I sit where I’m told and stay still especially when we go through small rapids.  Travelling along these three rivers, each one smaller that the previous one has certainly been an adventure which few travellers experience – and that alone is a recommendation! I love to get a little off the well-worn trails. (I returned to Miri by plane  – 30 minute trip)

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

At about 6pm , after leaving Miri about 9am, we arrive at the Royal Mulu Resort happy to check in and remove our plastic ponchos. I’d have been even happier had I known this was to be the home of the best bed in the world!  Next morning, over breakfast, one of the others in the group said, “I want to marry those pillows” so it was not just me who loved sinking into the soft luxury of the beds. I even looked under the sheet to see what the secret was … a lovely thick topper pad.

The Royal Mulu Resort is being upgraded and their website says:

The 101-room Royal Mulu Resort in Sarawak, Malaysia is set to be rebranded as the Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa in late quarter 4, 2014. With an ethnic design resembling longhouses, the resort rest on 15-foot wooden stilts rising over lush vegetation and linked by a series of walkways. Each guest rooms comes with its own balcony overlooking the scenic Melinau River, and modern amenities such as flat screen TVs and high – speed Internet access. 

The resort will feature an all new lobby lounge with open-space business center and library. Guests can dine in all-day, three – meal restaurant with an outdoor seating for al fresco dining. A private dining room and bakery / deli will be located next to the restaurant, while a riverside bar completes the resort’s F&B service.

Other recreational amenities will include a new spa, an outdoor swimming pool, gym and Activity Center, meeting facilities, and Marriott Kids Club. The resort can even arrange exciting outdoor activities such as night cruise, rafting, kayaking and jungle hiking and many more activities available at Mulu National Park – http://www.mulupark.com” 

Just so long as they don’t change the mattress and pillows I’ll be happy with whatever they do!

I sleep in the best bed in the world
I sleep in the best bed in the world

After dinner, it was great to have a good nights sleep as the next day we had some 26ks to walk, about 300 steps to climb, and a boat trip, as we explore the area, visit some caves, meet the locals, and watch the bats on their evening, syncronised, aerial display.

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What is jazz?

I was confused at my first jazz festival. I thought jazz was the music I listened to on the streets of New Orleans but not all the performers and their music were like that at the Christchurch Jazz Festival  (New Zealand). I loved the music but I wasn’t sure it was jazz!

I also heard music that was labelled jazz at WOMAD New Plymouth (NZ) – I thought it was big band or ska so knew I was missing something.

Now that I’m off the annual Borneo Jazz Festival (Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia) it’s time to do some research (via Google) but find even the people writing about it there have different opinions – but there are many similarities.

Part of the audience in 2013.
Part of the audience in 2013.

Wiki tells me: ‘Jazz is a type of African-American music that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Southern United States as a combination of European harmony and forms with African musical elements such as blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note.[1] Jazz has also incorporated elements of American popular music.[2]

It goes on  ‘As it spread around the world, jazz drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, giving rise to many distinctive styles’    and it was in this list I started to recognise styles I knew;  New Orleans jazz, big band swing,  1940s bebop, and  ska jazz.

Think the quote attributed to Louis Armstrong, sums it up for me!  He was one of the most famous musicians in jazz when he said to Bing Crosby on the latter’s radio show, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation, then they called it ragtime, then blues, then jazz. Now, it’s swing. White folks – yo’all sho is a mess!”[3][4]

So seems I was not alone in being confused, a ’mess’ I carried on reading then and thought a blog about ‘What is Jazz?’ seemed a way to clarify it for me and anyone else who is all a mess too.

Here are some bullet points about what I learnt: ( thanks to the people and pages quotes)

In a 1988 interview, trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”.

In a CNN OPINION ( @CNNOpinion) piece  Jonathan Batiste (Stay Human Band and is the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.(@jonbatiste)  said ‘This is an impossible question, and one with many answers.’

. . . contemporary jazz seems too circuitous for most listeners to enjoy casually. The challenge for the contemporary jazz musician, as I see it, is making this subtle and complex art palatable to the greater public. Jazz is complex.

. . . to play jazz is to contribute to world history. To be a part of this tradition means that you are challenged to transform other people with the sound of your instrument. You are challenged to swing. You are challenged to contribute to the body of work established by some of the greatest artistic minds of all time, work that includes these treasures:

• A performance of “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others from a CBS television broadcast in New York on December 8, 1957.

• “It Don’t Mean A Thing” by Duke Ellington features catchy vocals, hard swing, jazz violin and awesome horn section parts that epitomize what the jazz tradition is all about.

• “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” from the album by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It is a supreme example of the blues with utmost sophistication and feeling. The way Duke accompanies Satchmo is masterful, and the personality of the two of them signifies what jazz is all about.

 Jazz is an experience; it’s all about the moment –  it’s the language that we use to state our deepest, truest feelings; It is the American art form that is globally owned. (Jonathan Batiste).

In part All About Jazz tells me . . .

“The most pressing, in my opinion is “What Is Jazz?” Or, more to the point, “What Is Jazz Right At This Moment?” The old definitions, which themselves were inadequate and vague, composed of personal biases and half-truths, are now completely antiquated. Just think about the difference between what defined the simple telephone thirty years ago, compared to today’s reality of what a telephone is. And compare today’s smartphones to what a telephone was just five years ago. The more you think about it, the more you realize not only how far things have come, and how quickly they are changing, but how much your own initial definitions are rooted in long-held ideas that no longer apply. “

“While these definitions still apply to some of Our Music, it is no longer descriptive of the entire purview of Jazz. Electric and electronic instruments now share the stage with the classic horns, strings and keyboards that have been standard instrumentation almost since the very beginning. It is incorporating more world music from Middle Eastern to Asian.

None of that really answers the question of what Jazz is right now, possibly because that is virtually impossible to define. Jazz is a living thing, Jazz breathes, it grows, it changes, it adapts.

To summarise Jazz in America

  • It is partly planned and partly spontaneous;
  • “in the moment” this is called improvisation and is the defining /key element of jazz
  • There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. In other words, individual musicians have the freedom to express themselves on their instrument as long as they maintain their responsibility to the other musicians by adhering to the overall framework and structure of the tune
  • it’s kind of like musical conversation.
  • is like a language.
  • the spontaneity heard (or “felt”) in jazz requires the listener to be alert at all times to the ever-changing aspects of a given interpretation of a tune.
  • the same jazz tune (song) is never performed the same way twice; while it might start and end the same, the middle part is played differently every time.
  • In jazz, it’s more about the way a song is played, rather than what song is played.
  • In order to be able to hear the difference, you’ve got to listen a lot; the more you listen to a particular jazz musician, the more you’re able to recognize that player by his/her sound alone.
  • Jazz is hard to play but good players make it look easy.

I’ve decided I’m just going to listen and enjoy the international and local performers at the festival. See you there!

 

It’s all about jazz! Borneo Jazz Festival

Shortly I’m off to my favourite Asian country – Malaysia – in time to be at the Borneo Jazz Festival (9/11 May) in Miri, Sarawak. (Staying at the Park City Everly Hotel)

The Borneo Jazz Festival was suggested around 2006 as a way to  increase visitor arrivals to Miri and the northern region of Sarawak. I’m expecting a fun-filled and entertaining musical experience while also exploring Miri – I have only had 2 days there and as I had a cold I didn’t get to explore as I would usually. I’m also looking forward to Sarawak Laksa for breakfast!

All About Jazz  said “The Miri International Jazz Festival [now called the Borneo Jazz Festival] in Sarawak province Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, can lay claim to being the only jazz festival on the South China Sea. A long line of tankers and cargo ships stretches across the horizon like buttons sewn on a vast blue cloth and attests to Miri’s century-old history as an oil town. Located in the lush grounds of the Park City Everly Hotel, the stage facing the sea was the scene for two days of music, drawing artists from Thailand, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, Holland and Switzerland. Now in its fifth year, the festival is the cultural jewel in the crown of the Sarawak Tourism Board, whose stated aim is to use the festival as a magnet to draw tourists to the province.” Read more on the All About Jazz website.)

Miri is the birthplace of Malaysia’s petroleum industry – oil was discovered in the early 1900s – and it remains the major industry of this city. With a population around 300,000 people, it is also a resort city and is near to the Sultanate of Brunei and Sabah.

The city is surrounded by four world-class national parks which is Gunung Mulu National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the world’s largest caves), Niah National Park (Historical and archaeological site), Lambir Hills National Park (diverse species of flora and fauna) and Loagan Bunut National Park (largest natural lake) – I hope to see at least one of them!

Jazz lovers from around the world will no doubt have a great time enjoying renowned jazz performances by the international jazz artistes and here are some of the performers:

Among the bands that will be performing will be Iriao, the eight-piece ethno-jazz band from Georgia. Iriao’s repertoire is based on Georgian authentic folk instrumental and polyphonic music, which has been recognised by UNESCO as being a masterpiece of oral immaterial heritage. However the band is not aiming to modernize the unique polyphonic Georgian music but to saturate and adorn it with Jazz elements. This is the first time that a Georgian band will be performing at the Borneo Jazz.

Another interesting line-up is Vocal Sampling, an all-male a cappella musical group from Cuba who are expected to be a hit at this year’s festival as they are a well-known band and crowd pleaser. Their album “Cambio de Tiempo” was nominated for 3 Latin Grammy Awards.

Other favourite Jazz bands listed for this years’ event will be Brassballett from Germany – the first and only show worldwide where musicians are dancers at the same time. They will perform a choreographed show on stage whilst playing their instruments.  Mario Canonge – a great virtuoso and showman playing creole jazz with West Indies rhythms from Martinique/France. YK Band from Indonesia who will feature Jazz with hints of Borneo flavour. Anthony Strong – hailed as “England’s new jazz superstar” from UK. He became No 1 on iTunes and No 2 jazz charts in the USA.

Local artist Diana Liu, the Sarawakian born artist plays pop, jazz, bossa nova, gospel and funk/soul and will represent Malaysia.

borneo-jazz-2011-finale-021
Will you be part of the crowd this year?

 

Borneo jazz festival

Note: I have just been sent this press release as I write about Miri for a book I’m writing – serendipity

MIRI, Sarawak – Borneo Jazz has announced its lineup for 2014. The annual jazz festival, now in its 9th year, will be held in Miri, Sarawak from the 9th to 10th May. The impressive lineup this year includes ands who have really made it big in the jazz world of music. This is in line with year of ‘double celebration’, the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 (VMY 2014) and Visit Sarawak Year 2014.

Vocal Sampling - Cuba2

Among the bands that will be performing will be Iriao, the eight-piece ethno-jazz band from Georgia. Iriao’s repertoire is based on Georgian authentic folk instrumental and polyphonic music, which has been recognized by UNESCO as being a masterpiece of oral immaterial heritage. However the band is not aiming to modernize the unique polyphonic Georgian music but to saturate and adorn it with Jazz elements. This is the first time that a Georgian band will be performing at the Borneo Jazz.

Another interesting line-up is Vocal Sampling, (photo) an all-male a cappella musical group from Cuba who are expected to be among the hit of this years Borneo Jazz in Sarawak. They are a very well known band and a crowd pleaser. In the last 2 years, a capella acts have been a show topper at Borneo Jazz. Their album “Cambio de Tiempo” was nominated for 3 Latin Grammy Awards.

Other favourite Jazz bands listed for this years’ event will be Brassballett from Germany – the first and only show worldwide where musicians are dancers at the same time.They will perform a choreographed show on stage whilst playing their instruments, Mario Canonge – a great virtuoso and showman playing creole jazz with West indies rhythms from Martinique/France, also first Martinique band at the festival, YK Band from Indonesia who will feature Jazz with hints of Borneo flavour, Anthony Strong – hailed as “England’s new jazz superstar” from UK. He beat Gregory Porter, Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. to become No 1 on the iTunes and No 2 on the www.amazon.com jazz charts in the USA.  From the local scene we have Diana Liu, the Sarawakian born artist who plays pop, jazz, bossa nova, gospel andfunk/soul and who will represent Malaysia/USA/Taiwan. Among members of her band will be our very own Lewis Pragasam who will be on drums.

 

Entry tickets will be on sale starting on the last week of January 2014. For promotional offers and discounts as well as further information on the festival please log on to www.jazzborneo.com. Updates also available via STB’s Twitter account @SarawakTravel and Facebook at Sarawak Travel.

This annual event is organized by Sarawak Tourism Board, supported by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia and Ministry of Tourism Sarawak and endorsed by Tourism Malaysia.

Cuba and jazz

Cuba, the funky quarter of Wellington, NZ, is having a Jazz festival soon.  So the ‘coolest little capital in the world’ ( a title given to Wellington by Lonely Planet) is now going to have the coolest little jazz festival too. Check out the link for dates, artists and venues. (including free street events)

The colours of Cuba St
The colours of Cuba St