“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” If there is any truth to the old Kipling canard, it is a truth riddled with exceptions. Peking duck and Kenichi Ebina. Miss Saigon and Slumdog Millionaire – a list could go on for pages. And now, courtesy of cutesy named Moonjune Records, from exotic Indonesia comes some exciting new entries to that list with the music of two fine ensembles. I Know You Well Miss Clara is out with its debut album Chapter One; simakDialog is on its sixth, its third from Moonjune. What these two bands play is a blend of progressive jazz and rock with Indonesian rhythms and traditions. The emphasis is on the dialogue between traditions.
Patahan, the first of simakDialog’s widely available records, was a recording of a 2005 live performance at Goethe Haus in Jakarta. It was released in 2007. Led by the piano and Fender Rhodes of Riza Arshad and the guitar, acoustic and electric, of Tohpati, the quintet’s sound supplemented by vocals on a couple of tracks has been compared to a grittier Pat Methany, driven here by two different kinds of kendang (Indonesian hand drums).
The album features five of Arshad’s original pieces, all running between 11 and 19 minutes. There are wordless vocals on two, “Spur of the Moment” and the album’s finale, “Kain Sigli.” This last one also has the Kipling twain meeting with the addition of a poem read in German by guest Marla Stukenberg in counterpoint with a reading by percussionist Emy Tata. Patahan. Some impressive guitar work on it from Tohpati, makes for a fine introduction to the band’s music.
The 2008 album, Demi Masa, makes it clear that Patahan was no fluke. Once again the music is all original, and while some of it seems to more strongly reflect Indonesian roots, the dominant vibe is contemporary progressive jazz. Titles may need translation, but the music speaks directly, even to the Western ear. “Trah Lor – Rupa” may mean “Northern People – Faces” and “Disapih,” “Separate Away,” but whatever the title, the music speaks for itself in a universal language.
The 6th Story is their latest album. In the liner notes, Raymond Benson explains something about the Indonesian gamelan tradition and its application in simakDialog’s music. It is “the concept that a set of instruments are built and tuned together to create a distinct entity.” The tradition looks to create a distinct unified voice—one from many. I’m not sure that in some sense that doesn’t define the jazz tradition as well.
While the liner notes emphasize the Indonesian aesthetic, it makes clear that from the opening composition “Stepping In” through pieces like “What Would I Say,” “For Once and Never,” and “Common League,” it is not simply the English titles that will be familiar to jazz fusion fans. This is a band that knows the contemporary idiom.
Perhaps the only alien thing about I Know You Well Miss Clara is the length of their name. There is certainly nothing strange about their music. If anything, it is even more accessible than that of simakDialog. It incorporates a rock dynamic that runs from the opening number’s wailing guitar work by the group’s leader, Reza Ryan, through all seven of the album’s tracks. This is a musician who can play with soulful tenderness as in “Conversation,” or rock out in “Open the Door, See the Ground.”
The quartet consists of Adi Wijaya on keyboards, Enriko Gulto, on bass guitar and Alfiah Akbar on drums—they eschew, it seems, the kendang. Nicholas Combe plays sax on the final two tracks. Perhaps, his presence presages a “Chapter Two” in the near future—his work on “Dangerous Kitchen” adds an interesting new dimension to the ensemble.
With these groups as a sample of the kind of music coming out of Indonesia today, jazz fusion lovers have a lot to look forward to.