Sunday, June 10, 2007

Jazz on the Beach

HUA HIN – The combination is hard to beat: sand under your feet, a cool breeze wafting off the Gulf of Thailand, barrels of beer at every corner and the sound of cool jazz. What more could one want on a hot summer day?

The Hua Hin Jazz Festival has been growing in popularity and stature since it was founded in 2002 as a means of drawing more visitors to this seaside resort, about 200 km south of Bangkok.

The fact that it is a convenient two-hour drive from the capital has made the festival popular with young couples, lovers as well as jazz lovers. That this year’s festival was scaled down from 2006 did not seem to dampen the turnout.

Only two European jazz groups were on hand this year, instead of five the previous year. They included the Scandinavian diva Caroline Henderson, whose latest album “Love or Nothin’” won the “best album” award at the Danish Music Festival – the Danish “Grammy” - while she was here.

“I got the text message last night,” she beamed shortly before going on stage. The after glow of the recognition seemed to animate her performance on the second and last night of the festival.

She sang several numbers from the award-winning album, including “So Fine,” and an energetic rendition of “Sugar” as well as, from another album, an very personal rendition of that old standard, “Tenderly.”

The other headline group from abroad was the rocco Italian music twins Frederico “Kikko” and Francesco “Kekko” Montifiori. They were joined, as is usual, by complementary jazz groups from Thailand, including the S.U. Jazz Quintet, Ben Charatit & Mariam Alcalali, the Young Blood Band and Bossa Blossom

“You know our [economic and political] situation here in Thailand,” said Panadcanang Tippagomut, project director for CM Organizer. The scaled down event is “part of the ‘sufficiency economy’,” she said, referring to the Buddhist-inspired all things in moderation philosophy that is associated with King Bhumibol.

A representative of Hitman, the Thai recording label, which is responsible for booking the talent, had a more prosaic explanation: “budget constraints”.

Unlike in previous years, the 2007 festival was completely off-street. All of the performances took place on a single stage on a stretch of beach fronting the historic 1920s Railroad Hotel, now part of the Sofitel Group.

Undoubtedly, having all of the festival concentrated on one place pleased local authorities of this small town who did not have to close off streets and try to accommodate the flow of traffic. If the promoter’s estimate of 65,000 jazz fans is accurate, the festival goers just about match the population of the town.

But it also underscores the limitations of the festival as it becomes better known and popular. The seaside venue is essential for the theme: “Jazz on the beach”. Yet less than 50 meters separates the expansive hotel grounds (strictly for paying guests) and the water’s edge. In that space are crammed at least 10,000 concert goers a night.

The rising tide (which happens to be highest at this time of year) did not discourage the fans. Some perched on the rocks jutting out of the sea or, when the rocks were fully occupied, simply stood angle deep in the sea keeping with the beat as water slosh through their bare feet.

The organizers abandoned the idea of a second stage in front of the neighboring Hilton Hotel, which they had tried out last year, since the beach front there is even more constricted than in front of the Sofitel. The festival is literally caught between a rock (s) and a hard place.

The Thai jazz group OMAH Quarter paid a special tribute to King Bhumibol by playing one of his compositions, a bluesy number known as “Yam Yen” (Sundown) in honor of the His Majesty’s 80th birthday this year.

The King now lives more or less year-round in the “summer” palace, Klai Kangwon (Far from Worries) several kilometers down the beach front in Hua Hin, and he has long been a jazz aficionado and saxophone player (he once jammed with jazz great Benny Goodman during a tour of the United States).

If reports emanating from the palace are accurate, the King still regularly jams with his own band known as Aor Sor Wan Sook early on Sunday mornings at his Hua Hin palace, as they have been doing for the past 25 years.

Today the band has only about 10 members, most of whom are pushing 70. The King, of course, did not personally attend the festival. Wonder if any of his band members watched the festivities incognito?

Probably the biggest hit of the festival was the Italian Montefiori twins and their backup players with their “cocktail” mixture of easy-listening, “lounge” jazz and bosso nova. “The latter gives things a Latin flavor, which is appropriate enough since “we’re Latin ourselves,” said Fransesco. “It was World Music from the beginning.”

But there is a real Montifiori cocktail invented by Frederico’s girlfriend. It is comprised of vodka, Italian wine and strawberry juice. But beware. The concoction is pretty strong stuff. Just like the music.

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