“In Jazz, you have to be either shocking or impressive,” said Eftekasat keyboard player Amro Saleh, basking in the smoky glow of stage lights as he addressed a crowd of several hundred. “Unit Asia is both.”
The Japanese-Malaysian-Thai jazz ensemble certainly lived up to this double whammy in its performance at Sawy Culturewheel on Tuesday night, delivering a thoughtful and passionate mosaic of melody and sound.
The concert featured original compositions from their recently released album “Smile on You,” as well as pieces by Eftekasat. Stand-out numbers included “New Blues,” composed by Miyoshi Isao, and “The Art of the Wind-Up Alarm Clock” composed by Tay Cher Siang.
Energetic and upbeat, “New Blues” was driven by Shigeki Ippon’s energetic bass and Isao Sankichi Miyoshi’s screamingly electric guitar, and grounded by Hiroyuki Noritake’s brash percussion.
“The Art of the Wind-Up Alarm Clock” had the feel of a jazzy take on classical piano, rooted with Siang on piano and spiced up by Koh Mr. Saxman on saxaphone. Dreamy guitar lent the piece the otherworldly feel of a track off Phish’s “Billy Breathes,” perhaps even making it “Wizard of Oz” enough to fit as an instrumental to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Guest artists from Egyptian jazz band Eftekasat joined the group for several numbers mid-show, bringing with them traditionally Middle Eastern instruments such as nay flute (Layth Soliman) and goblet drum (Hany Bedair) as well as keyboard (Amro Saleh).
After Unit Asia’s innovative and arresting opening, the joint performance came across as technically proficient but lacking the passion and confidence that took Unit Asia’s music to the next level.
As Unit Asia member Siang summarized, “the collaboration with Eftekasat is like a dialogue between two bands from totally different background.”
On paper, dialogue and fusion always sound like a win-win. While it was clear that the artists from both groups were talented and perceptive players, the combined stage performance had the feel of a pre-coordinated jam session, which came with both predictable advantages (more elements brought to bear) and disadvantages (not enough time for musicians to gel).
The concert was organized by the Japan Foundation, in cooperation with the Japanese, Thai, and Malaysian embassies and the Jazz Society of Egypt. Like many events organized by embassies and cultural centers, the rallying cry of the concert revolved around dialogue, exchange and peace.
“The central aim of this event is to exchange ideas, promote peace, and share our viewpoints through music and art,” Unit Asia member Siang told Daily News Egypt.
“It is so easy to spread violence and hatred, while understanding and peace takes such long time to build and they can be so fragile,” he said. “By having this concert, we are just hoping to bridge the gap of understanding between the Middle East and Asia, albeit in a small way.”
But why is jazz the bridge? For anyone wondering why a musical genre with American origins is being used as a medium for cultural exchange between Asia and the Middle East, Koji Sato, Deputy Director of the Japan Foundation in Cairo, has an answer: the concert’s aim is not to present a uniquely Asian art form, but rather one that is global and malleable.
With this concert, the Japan Foundation sought to introduce Egyptian music lovers to something unique and different from European jazz, showing them that music and art of western origin can be re-invented by non-westerners in very interesting ways, explained Sato.
“We would like to convey the message to Egyptian youth that one can [create original work] out of something of western origin,” he said. “Traditional art is not only the way to disseminate our own cultural uniqueness.”
Siang echoed this sentiment. “Jazz is a hybrid, fusion, or even ‘bastardized’ art form, and the beauty of it is that it changes over time, taking influences from different cultures and is always growing,” he said. “Anybody can take jazz as their own if they are willing to experiment, to contribute, to give and to take.”