Somehow in all the madness of the last three weeks I managed to find time to attend the first International Jazz Festival to be held in Kuala Lumpur. It may well be the last, for it was not well attended, and those of us who had paid for seats ‘in the gods,’ as they call the back rows, found themselves ‘upgraded’ from the gallery to the ground floor. Even with the balcony closed, those few who found their way to the hall for the beginning of the festival found themselves pretty widely scattered around the auditorium.

Perhaps the venue was not well chosen, for the Plenary Hall in the KL Convention Centre was built to hold 3,000. It is a gorgeous facility with steep risers and wide comfortable seats so that every view is a good one. Although no one much cared where you sat, I found myself most often at the back of the hall where I could put my feet up and sip my Starbucks soy latte and groove to the music in peace.

There is a small core of dedicated musicians in Malaysia trying hard to educate the ears of the public to sounds that go beyond their love of Asian boy bands. Many of the performers were Asian themselves, but most are living in the West where they can make a living from jazz. The best of these might have been Meg Okura who led a troupe called the Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble, who despite their name work and live in New York. Ms. Okura plays the violin, among other things, and to be honest it is probably my least favourite ‘jazz’ instrument. However, her band was very tight, and her music, much of it written by Okura, was bright, fast and edgy.

Another Asian worth watching was Trevor Jalla who hails from Sarawak, of all places, although he now lives and works in Perth, Australia. He was about as connected to jazz as B.B. King; that is to say, he played the blues, straight up and without apology. I have to admit when I first saw this dorky little character come on stage I thought he was the roadie just tuning the guitar. He looked like Buddy Holly with a bad case of bed head. But then he picked up that flame maple Les Paul and let it rip into an old B.B. King tune, and man could he play that thing! Then this nerdy little scarecrow lets out with a voice like a gravel truck gearing down and I knew I was in for a treat. Tasty, as we used to say!

Ernie Watts is a saxophonist who is getting up around 65-70 years old, but you would never know if you closed your eyes and just listened to him wail. He earned his stripes as a studio musician in Detroit laying down tracks for the Motown sound and touring with Marvin Gaye, Buddy Rich and the Rolling Stones. He moved to jazz in the 80’s and has developed a solid reputation in the field for his fast fingering and lyrical flights of improvisation. His band had a hard time keeping pace with the old geezer!

There were plenty of other acts, but I won’t bore you with the entire list; you get the idea. As with all things KL, I ended up paying the price for staying out late as the public transportation system in the city closes at 11:30 and I got hosed for the exorbitant rates the taxis charge at that hour to get home. I swear I will never go downtown without a car again no matter how long I have to sit in traffic to get there. But despite the frustration, and the miserable turnout, it was an excellent evening of music and a real treat to discover such a gorgeous venue in the heart of the city. Apparently they do Broadway shows here. Who knew!

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