All that jazz: Unwinding at Malaysia’s best music festivals
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All that jazz: Unwinding at Malaysia’s best music festivals

By Charles Lawrence

WHAT is jazz? According to the Merriam-Webster definition, it is:

“American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.”

And what is this to us, the fanatical fans, but words putting technological description to something we know as a musical addiction? Jazz is America’s gift to the world’s collective musical culture. It’s modern and ancient. It drives and calms. Now, as an international music form, the rifts and tonal shifts can be heard from original compositions to those of the Bird, from New Orleans to Kuala Lumpur.

Jazz is everywhere and lends well to festival atmospheres. Even in the far flung reaches of the Malay peninsula, the highs and lows of the trumpet blows can be felt by eardrums and transformed into sounds of soothing or beats that are moving. Jazz. Come and get some you globe trotting hepcats…

Malaysians may not recognize it, but they love the propulsive, syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improv and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre of jazz. They also love carnival like atmospheres, soaking up the sounds and ambiance of live music. Jazz festivals are big in Malaysia. There are four festivals that attract major international acts as well as Malaysian talents from KL to Borneo. There is also a festival dedicated to up and coming musicians from across Malaysia. So for your next Malaysian vacation try to time it for one of these events so you can see what a swinging nation it is. Not just “truly Asia”, but truly jazz too!

Launching onto the fest scene in May was the KL International Jazz Festival, a weekend of super smooth and upbeat jazz that put KL on the jazz map. Over two days and 12 hours of romping rhythms and bodacious beats, the festival heralded an unrivalled advance of jazz in the capital, with nearly thirty artists from as far away as Brooklyn and as close as KL. Highlights included Ernie Watts, RTM Jazz Orchestra, Trevor Jalla, Michael Veerapen, Incognito, and the DBKl Big Band. The 2013 festival promises to be even bigger with an additional day. Skidadiddly bop baby!


Famous Malaysian guitarist Paul Ponnudorai. Pic: Viroze, Flickr.

Formerly know as the Miri Jazz Festival, the Borneo Jazz Festival promises to deliver exotic flavors “as you groove to the music in this land where adventure lives”. This one is for adventurous fans wanting to groove “green” near Borneo’s jungles and reefs. Even though the venue is in Miri, a petro-boom city, the calming effects of Mother Nature are close at hand, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gunung Mulu. When the jazz gets too hot head to the cool highlands of Ba Kelalan to recharge for the next session. The seventh annual fest has groups from all corners of the world, including Saxman Koh from Bangkok, FVE from Malaysia, SLIXS from Germany, and Tangora from France. The 2013 fest is set for May 10 – 11.

Originally an evening of jazz organized by the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu, the Kota Kinabalu, or KK Jazz Festival is now a two-day event, featuring international acts. As a charitable concert, proceeds go to “deserving community” projects like The Clean Water Projects that provides safe drinking water in rural areas. The 2012 event on June 15 and 16 featured thirteen acts on two stages for 8+ hours. Showcasing mainly local talent, the KKJL is a window to the “talent of the people from the Land Below the Wind”.

Perhaps the “Datuk” of all the fests is the Penang Island Jazz Festival to be held this year from November 29 to December 2 – four days of jazzy jive’n on its “Jazz by the Beach Stage”! Billed as a “more socially conscious festival”…promoting all-important grass roots jazz education, the PIJF has propelled itself to the forefront of regional jazz festivals and become internationally recognized. In 2011, the legendary Nina Van Horn performed here but the 2012 schedule is still developing.


Penang Jazz Festival. Pic: Viroze, Flickr.

Finally, a bit of jazz that sees not the ancient and established, but the blooming and exploring youth is the World Youth Jazz Festival in Putrajaya. WYJF was founded by a “Malaysian Jazz Personality”, has the full support of the Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports as well as the Jazz Community Malaysia (JAZZCOM) and is TOTALLY FREE. The inaugural event was held over five days in May 2012, with hundreds of performers to share their passion for jazz. The 2013 fest is still in planning stages.

So, there you have it. Jazz a plenty, from city to shore, and jungle in between. Malaysia has your jazz and is definitely the coolest place in Asia for hepcats to chill.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website


About the author…

Charles Lawrence
Having grown up in Northwest Florida and Wyoming, then pursing an MS in Social Science Education, C. Lawrence’s road to wine hasn’t been as direct as some. However, in 2006 he decided to pursue his passion, thus embarking on his own, continuing journey of vinous discovery. Since then, Charles has attained WSET certification, operated Vendimia Wine Bar in Hakuba Japan, worked as a wine consultant for hotels/restaurants in Japan and Thailand, spent a harvest in California’s Russian River Valley at Porter Creek Vineyards, and is now enrolled in the Bordeaux Ecole du Management Wine MBA. After nearly 12 years in Japan, Charles is off to Bangkok where he will be working with wine. He blogs on

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