A jazzy ode to Thailand

WDR Big Band wonderfully captures the `Colours of Siam'


If jazz is meant to innovate and improvise, the WDR Big Band from Cologne, Germany did so with great appetite on Friday night, at Bangkok's 4th International Festival of Dance & Music.

One of Europe's leading jazz ensembles, the Band is part of Cologne's public radio and broadcasting studios. In the last 50 years it has won enviable fame for its unique range of styles from traditional to fusion jazz, avante garde and world music.

Along with the Big Band styles of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey it has played innovative arrangements of new-age composers like Bob Brookmeyer and Bill Dobbins.

It has also accompanied charismatic stars like Phil Collins and Quincy Jones.

Among the many accolades it has won are the German Jazz Award and several Grammy nominations.

The self-styled 'musical ambassadors' for whom 'musical borders are musical challenges' revelled in their penchant for original orchestrations at the Bangkok concert where they played a unique medley of rhythms based purely on Thai themes.

The concert was entitled 'The Colours of Siam' and the themes incorporated everything from the City of Angels' notorious traffic to its rain, islands, pagodas, nightlife, spirit of Chiang Mai and colours of the Indian Pahurat district.

The melodies for the concert were composed by Thorsten Wollmann, who lived in Thailand for four years, where he taught music at Payap University. Married to a Thai woman, Pimonmas, one of the mellifluous songs was dedicated to his 4-year-old daughter Janine.

The musician is presently doing his Doctorate in Musical Composition in New Zealand.

In keeping with the WDR Band's reputation for presenting internationally-known soloists he fielded a bevy of talented artistes from New Zealand, America, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and Argentine, in the 17-member band.

Saxophone soloist Hayden Chisholm from New Zealand played with skill and fluency as he interpreted a wide and varied range of expositions. Chisholm has recorded seven solo CDs and done concert tours on solo saxophone throughout Europe, Asia, Africa.

From the Bossa Nova percussive richness of 'Between Islands' to the blues melodies of 'Bangkok Ways', the Big Band style of 'City of Angels', Wollmann 'conducted' with verve and spirit. His feelings were translated into a personalised, persuasive idiom that the audience responded to with enthusiasm.

There were Yanni-like intonations in numbers like 'Bangkok Ways', which was a vibrant melange of energetic rhythms and punctuated stops, with interesting interjections by the baritone saxophone and vibraphone. Wollmann called the composition a musical interpretation of the 'Mai Pen Rai' spirit of Thailand. It was indeed, a splendiferous celebration of the Thai spirit.

Just like 'Traffic Jam' had an up-and-down movement, which captured the Buddhist stoic spirit in a scenario of slow and hi-tempo rhythms, and 'Rainy Season' had an assorted array of flurried piano notes and trumpet intonation, enveloping out evocatively with bass guitar and percussion.

'Pagodas' was a slow, meditative pentatonic number while 'Night Sketch' had deep, dark rhythms with tonal variations, almost as if to capture the complicated and multifarious layers of Bangkok's nightlife.

'Tropical Nights' was full of connecting themes and rich meanings as it combined evocative saxophone and trumpet rhythms with a rich percussive interjection, suddenly ending with a melodious tinkle.

It was these sudden turns and twists that made this concert a night to remember.

The most interesting compositions were the unique interpretation of the 'Royal Thai Theme' as well as a popular Chiang Mai folk melody.

The rich pervasive notes of the brass band translated two well-known Thai melodies with clever innovation, while the ethnic folksy notes retained their identity in background of vibrant jazzy rhythms.

Equally exciting was the composition on the Indian district of Pahurat, in which the soprano saxophone imitated the notes of the Indian 'shehnai' and the trombone and trumpets resurrected a typical folk band of Delhi or Punjab.

The WDR Big Band performed in India some years back and have another Indian project coming up soon.

As musical ambassadors they have bridged many borders and it was exciting to witness the world premiere of their musical ode to Thailand.