The Art of Improvisation – Jazz in Penang

Michel Reis (piano), Dan Loomis (bass) and Paul Wiltgen (drums) playing at the PIJF 2017

Being able to improvise is one of the key competences of jazz musicians. However, the organisers of the 14th Penang Island Jazz Festival (PIJF) proved that they, too, master this art perfectly.

Just before the last band was about to play, heavy rain made it impossible to continue the open air concert “Jazz by the beach” held in the garden of the Bayview Hotel in Batu Ferrengi. Organiser Paul Augustin and his team had to come up with a solution very fast. Without further ado, they relocated the last band and the die-hard jazz fans that had not fled from the downpour to a small club inside the hotel.

Apparantly, the adverse circumstances welded together audience and artists, as the Austrian quartet Holler My Dear easily went on to set the crowning highlight of the event. With their mix of folk and catchy melodic acoustic pop they took the audience by storm, turning passive listeners into active collaborators, making them sing, clap and cheer.

The festival had started 3 days earlier and, as usual, the first two days featured performances mainly by Malaysian musicians. Two young bands stood out (imho): The Electric Salmon from Penang breathed new life into funk and soul classics and demonstrated a keen sense for mixing well known with lesser known tunes. # IV (Sharp Four) from Kuala Lumpur, on the other hand, performed own material which clearly paid tribute to the jazz rock genre of the 70s. Their powerful sound using advanced harmonics and sometimes odd time signatures never failed to be melodic and balanced, thanks to the highly accomplished musicianship of each individual member.

Modern Pansori

The last two days of the PIJF presented artists from all over the world. Among them were two ensembles from South Korea (Modern Pansori and SE:UM) mashing up traditional Eastern music with jazz rhythms and harmonics.

The Malaysian quintet Tonal Alchemy presented both originals and covers of traditional and modern jazz tunes arranged in their own distinctive style, such as the beautiful “Slamat Malam” by Penang’s legendary composer David Ng which band leader Wilson Quah modified into a groovy, smooth latin jazz arrangement.

Wilson Quah of Tonal Alchemy

The majority of artists however came from European countries, such as saxophonist/singer Haakon Kornstad from Norway, fingerstyle guitarist Peppino D’Agostino from Italy, the Grzegorz Karnas Formula from Poland, a trio from Luxembourg consisting of Michel Reis (piano), Dan Loomis (bass) and Paul Wiltgen (drums), and the Eva Klesse Quartet from Germany.


Eva Klesse Quartet

The latter’s music was characterised by a finely balanced ensemble sound which was so transparent that when closing your eyes you could easily imagine you’d be sitting right next to the musicians in the middle of the stage. This was largely due to the outstanding work of the sound crew which together with the lighting guys provided a solid framework for the look and feel of the festival. However, the crystal clear sound could certainly not have been achieved in this quality if not for the musicians who apparantly have a deep respect for each other, giving every individual player room to shine and at the same time supporting the sonic signature of the ensemble. The superb sound came hand in hand with well crafted compositions combining strong melodies and unique harmonic structures with lyrical improvisations.


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