Curating a music festival may sound like every fan’s dream. But it’s a lot more than running through a music library and picking out favourites to feature live on stage.
Today’s curators often go beyond the mere selection of acts. Jazz curators like Juan Wan of Jam Trec Records is a prime example. Returning as music curator of the Iskandar Puteri Jazz Festival (IP Jazz), Juan has to cope under the pressure of a bigger budget, expanded line-up, and growing expectations.
Iskandar Puteri Jazz Festival launched last year with major international jazz acts handpicked by Juan. The event drew over 5,000 attendees, quietly replacing the now-defunct Johor Bahru Jazz Fest as the largest jazz event in the south.
This year, Juan plans to strengthen the festival’s draw as a regional attraction with his curation. We chatted to him to learn more about his sizeable task and find out more about this year’s festival -- read on to find out.
As music curator for the second year, how has IP Jazz's direction evolved since its inception last year? Do you detect any major changes for 2018?
Well, I tried to make the festival more ‘regional’ by having performers from Indonesia and Singapore to participate. But I am still maintaining the balance of fresh faces versus seasoned acts.
We also have 2 main stages now, compared to last year when we had 1 main stage and 1 smaller performance space attached to a bistro. This was done after we realised that people needed to walk from one end to another if they are keen to check out the other stage.
There are many forms of jazz internationally, each with its own devoted fanbase. Can you tell us more about the varieties of jazz featured in this festival and what people can expect in terms of music?
Every time I curate a jazz festival, there’s one thing in my mind. Make it a memorable one, musically. Coming into the second edition of IP Jazz, my goal was to expand our range in music selection as well as grow our audience.
For instance, from Indonesia we have Barry Likumahuwa with his contemporary jazz group incorporating hip-hop and traditional Javanese influences; Barry has performed in many renowned festivals such as Java Jazz, Taichung Jazz and Vienna Jazz, on top of renowned clubs like Blue Note in Tokyo. Also from Indonesia, I have Agis Kania doing a totally different thing, think smooth jazz and soul, a musically delicate mix which adds a whole new flavour to this festival.
Some of our acts have also been nominated or won at the Grammy’s. Robin Banerjee hails from the UK and he will be performing with some friends. Robin is the former live guitarist for Amy Winehouse plus he has also played with Jazz Jamaica, Hugh Masekela and Roy Hargrove. This time he's backed up by our own local musicians and performing his repertoire which includes a few jazz standards.
Another interesting act to look forward to is Kayhan Kalhor & Kiya Tabassian: both are from Iran and their sound is more traditional; listen out for Kurdish and Turkish sounds as well as a strong Persian influence. Kayhan won a Grammy last year for his collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble.
What are the acts you are personally looking forward to this year?
To be honest, all of them! (laughs) I realised that most acts and musicians will craft their own thing in a festival, it is very interesting. Everyone will try to stand out musically and want the audience to remember them. It is very different than the usual club gigs that they perform. It gets very personal -- in a good way -- if you get what I mean. Both international and local musicians usually give me full support in the festivals I curate, and I'm enjoying it.
Last year, there seemed to be a stronger Latin American flavour which got the crowd to dance. Will this year's affair be just as groovy?
Yes. For most people, latin jazz is the music to dance to. This year we also have a premier latin jazz act to close the night. Orquesta Yambeque has members from many Latin-American countries such as Cuba, Colombia, Paraguay. Though I'm trying to expand the range of music showcased in our festival, I’m still maintaining the groovier stuff. We have our very own Azmi Hairuddin & Friends and this time, we feature the legendary Casey on bass and also vocals! How exciting is that?
Can you tell us more about the jam session that takes place after the final headliner has performed? Who usually participates in these sessions; are members of the public welcome to join?
I usually will assign one of the later performers to host that, usually for the first few songs. Along the session, musicians can take turns to go up and discuss, then play whatever they plan. It's mostly an impromptu kind of thing. The beauty of this jam session is that these musicians get a chance to personally engage with one another, exchange contacts, and perhaps open up more opportunities in the future. It’s especially useful for local musicians. And yes, the members of the public are welcomed to go up and perform with our lineup during the jam session too -- they won’t judge!
The festival will take place this weekend! What are your major concerns at this point of time, and are there any challenges left to overcome?
As of now, we have a few minor changes. The most important thing is making sure everyone can make it to the soundcheck. Aside from that, we’ll continue to worry about all the boring stuff such as the stage, lighting and systems setup. Those are very critical for a good show.
Looking back at the first Iskandar Puteri Jazz Festival, were there any moments or decisions you were particular proud of?
I was very happy to put Malaysian musicians up on the same stage with the international acts. A few local musicians performed with The Awakenings Ensemble from Australia last year and guess what? The band had very positive feedback for our talents! I got Evelyn Feroza to sing with them. She was a little nervous when the role was first offered to her but she overcame that during the show and quickly became a crowd favourite. Just imagine, they’ve never met each other until the day itself. And then there was Julian Chan and Patrick Terbrack on saxophones, and Travis Tan on the bass. The night ended up to be very memorable.
This article was first published 7 September 2018 on The Daily Seni. The Iskandar Puteri Jazz Festival took place on Marina Walk, Puteri Harbour on 8 September 2018. For more details, visit Iskandar Puteri Jazz Festival 2018 on Facebook.