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Cool winds blow the rain away

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The shuffle demons and Belgian saxophone ensemble experiment with the limits of jazz



A heavy downpour washed out most of Bangkok on October 3, and Ratchadipisek Road claimed the prize for the worst traffic. But that evening two bands were waiting to welcome their audience at the Thailand Cultural Centre for their performances as part of Bangkok’s 18th International Festival of Dance and Music. 
The first show was the Shuffle Demons, a fusion jazz band from Canada. They began their set walking from the back of the auditorium, along with members of the audience who’d managed to beat the traffic jam. The saxophonists walked in rhythm to the stage, blowing their horns, accompanied by rhythmic footsteps and claps, which suggested to me a glimpse of the fun that was to come that night. 
The Shuffle Demons have been together for more than 20 years and have performed at many major jazz festivals. In Bangkok they began with a be-bop style, with the saxophone trio as the lead actors – the alto and two tenors switching roles easily, from accompaniment to playing solos or duets. 
Their years of experience playing together certainly showed in the performance.
The drummer, with his stylish haircut, segued smoothly through a variety of styles, from jazz to rock, funk and hip-hop, turning the mood and tone of the Shuffle Demons’ be-bop style into fusion. 
But it was the bassist who caught my attention the most. He appeared wearing sunglasses and a nemes – the tall, striped headdress worn by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. He was certainly very different from the rest of the band members, not just in appearance but also in his style of playing. He plucked, slapped and also legato-bowed his solo parts. 
His sound was utterly classical when he gently bowed the four strings, but then suddenly he would generate sounds similar to that of 20th-century music. He also experimented with his instrument, putting drumsticks between the strings and spinning them. The resulting arrhythmic beats and un-pitched tones were composited by dynamics and a variety of sound colours. 
To me, his music background must have been extraordinary to drive his imagination and music so differently from the other members. 
One could hear that the different sounds and styles coming together in the music of the Shuffle Demons. Their transition from be-bop to funk, from hip-hop back to bop, or even bringing the audiences back from experimental music was smooth, and the five members were worthy guides to take the audience on their shuffling musical ride. 
After an intermission, it was the turn of the Belgian Saxophone Ensemble (BSE) to take to the stage, with the 13 saxophonists marching in from every entrance of the auditorium. 
The first note was blown in the air, followed repeatedly by a short melody from each of the different sax types, turning it into a conversation of sorts among the instruments. The first piece was contemporary, combining melodic phrases with improvisation. Breathy notes were used to mimic ocean waves, and growling notes to imitate people chatting. 
It struck me as a new approach to composing music, where the composer lets the musicians improvise to produce some of the material and then assembled the ingredients. Their next piece, “Brussels Suite”, impressed me even more with its creativity and minimalist style. 
The rest of the BSE’s performance was a merging of cool bop and 20th-century music, which truly revealed the originality of the musicians. Their experimentation with various kinds of saxophones interested me, especially when they mimicked the sounds of the guitar and bass guitar. 
Over the years the sax has been developed so that its range can now replace a whole orchestra. The techniques the BSE brought were breathtaking and thought-provoking. I cannot say it was pure jazz, on the lines of Louis Armstrong or Diana Krall, but, if jazz is freedom, then with their multiple techniques, ways of compositing, and the musical worlds they led the audiences to, this was definitely jazz. 
I left the auditorium and the rain was still coming down hard. But, thinking of their music, I just didn’t mind the downpour any longer. 

Published : October 10, 2016