Miri International Jazz Festival: What's All That Jazz?

A behind the scenes peek before the start of the jazz fest. Artistes give their take on what jazz is to them. Text and Photos by Mallika Naguran

Miri, 14 May 2010. There was lightheartedness and mirth all around on day one of the 5th Miri International Jazz Festival as artistes tackled questions from local and international media. The two-day festival is being held on Friday 14 May 2010 and Saturday 15 May 2010 at the Park City Everly Hotel beachfront in the quaint city of Miri, Sarawak of course.

This year’s lineup features truer jazz forms than last year’s, which could have been mistaken for a world music concert (but no less entertaining): James Cotton Blues Band (USA), Amina Figarova Sextet (Holland), Ricardo Herz (Brazil), Mellow Motif (Thailand), Michael Shrieve’s Spellbinder (USA), SimakDialog (Indonesia), Norbert Susemihl’s New Orleans All Stars (Denmark/Germany/USA) and Jeremy Tordjman (France).

(from left) Eugene, Natasha (Mellow Motif), Bart & Amina Figarova, Kerry Lewis, Norbert Susemihl, Orange Kellin (New Orleans All Stars), Jeremy Torjman and Charlie Halloran (New Orleans All Stars).

The expected question of what is jazz and the definition of jazz came up during the press conference, to the muffled groans from others. This came in the context of an artiste like Jeremy Tordjman who head earlier described how jazz for him had evolved from playing a bit of this and that, starting with rock, then moving on to blues, inspired by his father who was also a guitarist and a fan of Jimi Hendrix. 

Jeremy Tordjman: Bring on the vibes.

Add funk and World to Jeremy’s repertoire and you already have a heady mix of grooves that slid and slide with intoxicating energy, appealing to anybody who loves listening to a good note. And he plays in international jazz concerts.

“Jazz arose at a time when people had to find their own voice, and there were no boundaries then. That hasn’t changed today,” says Eugene, of the Mellow Motif from Thailand, who together with Natasha, break away from being “purists” to arrange music with Thai motifs in their second album.  It is a way of soft launching jazz to masses that are used to nothing but pop culture and boy bands. As jazz cannot be pinned down, it “makes the question irrelevant”, added Eugene.

Kerry G. Lewis, a bassist with Norbert Susemihl’s New Orleans All Stars, described jazz as something fluid that at one time was considered “pop” to those who appreciated it. The band tries to keep to the true New Orleans essence though. “We try to represent the whole spectrum of the music that is played today in New Orleans and when it first started there,” said Nobert Susemihl.

Jazz can also tell stories, we found out. Amina Figarova told the media how Sketches, the band’s latest album recorded in 2008, could probably mimic a scrapbook. “We try to describe musically stuff that happens on tours; interesting experiences that take place as we travel together.”

Amina Figarova: Jazz can tell stories.

Hurricane Katrina influenced a song in her album as she saw how the whipping rains and winds reduced everything that was once vibrant, into shambles. Another song captured what the group felt as they arrived at an airport to get to a festival just to see their plane taking off, a little too late.

Jazz is not just about defining your own style, having achieved technical mastery from the greats and classics, it is also probing and learning, often blending in multi-cultural hues (Brad in Amina Figarova plays the Japanese shakuhachi and Jeremy Torjman’s Project features African rhythm).

“Once you stop learning you’re musically dead,” said the Azerbaijian-born Amina who now lives in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She grew up with various traditional music backgrounds and Motown, but now dabbles with different rhythmic influences, mostly subconsciously.