Chilled vibes, enthusiastic festival goers and saxx on the beach
We might be jumping ahead of ourselves. But it seems like the jazz scene on our little island is hotting up. Just last weekend, new jazz bar Cool Cats at the NCO opened to great fanfare. April saw another successful edition of Sing Jazz, now in its fifth year. And the year-old Lulu’s Lounge, with its sultry, throwback New York vibe, continues to buzz with an enthusiastic crowd.
In the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin – a three-hour drive from Bangkok – the jazz scene, too, is growing. There, the Hua Hin International Jazz Festival has been a regular fixture on the event calendar for a good decade.
Thai Airways, an event sponsor for the second year running, hosted select Singapore media for the Festival weekend. This year, it took place on 18-19 May, on the beach in front of Centara Grand Beach Resort.
Nivat Chantarachoti, the airline’s general manager for Singapore, explained why the Festival is held in Hua Hin and not, say, a more obvious destination such as Phuket or Bangkok.
“Our late King (Bhumibol Adulyadej, 1927–2016) was one of the greatest jazz artists in Thai history. He was an accomplished saxophonist. And he had a summer palace in Hua Hin. I would say that Hua Hin is the jazz capital of Thailand."
Festival organiser Vichart Jirathiyut, who is also Managing Director of record company Hitman Jazz, was slightly more modest.
“We’re trying to establish Hua Hin as the jazz capital of Thailand. Last year was the first time I got involved. This year the festival got bigger. We tried to select the lineup carefully. We have a span of musical styles."
Different Strokes for Different Folks
And stylistically diverse it was. On the (main) Beach Stage were acts like The Sound of Siam, led by popular Thai saxophonist Koh Mr. Saxman, Japanese jazz-fusion band Dimension, and UK jazz-funk band Shakatak, as well as performers like Nina Van Horn, a French jazz-blues artist, John di Martino, a classical jazz pianist, plus Veronica Nunes and Ricardo Vogt, a Brazilian bossa nova duo.
The latter also played a brunch-time set at the Holiday Inn Vana Nava Hua Hin’s Plamong restaurant. Incidentally, the hotel was where we put up for the weekend.
The 27-storey, 300-key property held its grand opening in February 2018. Part of the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), the hotel is owned by the Liptapanlop family, one of the country’s elite. IHG was also among the Festival’s sponsors.
I asked general manager Franck Rodriguez what it meant to be part of the Festival in its first year of opening.
“We’re proud to be part of it, and to be able to contribute to the success of the destination. We had three or four rooms (occupied by) different performers," he replied.
“Every year the Festival takes on more importance. It started very small 10 years ago. But it seems to be taking off. I was there on the first night. It had a good vibe. Being on the beach brings a different feeling. It’s very relaxing."
Kittiphong Sansomboon, a regular Festival attendee, couldn’t agree more. The Thai Airways director, brand and advertising said, “You’re on the beach, listening to world class tunes. You can go right up to the stage with a glass of wine or beer. Who wouldn’t like that? I love it! It’s worth every single cent that we (sponsored)."
Indeed, there was a lot to love about the Festival, at least from my perspective as a first-time goer.
One, there was no entry fee (and therefore no queues. Hooray!). People were free to come and go as they pleased – and they did, paying only for food and drinks consumed.
Two, it was all a very civilised affair. The crowd, which comprised Bangkok Thais, expats living in Hua Hin, and some tourists, was respectful and well-behaved.
Three, the atmosphere was relaxed and sophisticated, chic even – women in their summer finery, men in crisp linens. Take away the humidity and we could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean.
And then of course there was the music. I can’t claim to know any of the acts, save for a vague recollection of UK band Shakatak. But I went with an open mind, and had my musical horizons broadened.
That, apparently, was the point.
A Whole Nother Level
“I don’t want to have the same artists year after year," said Jirathiyut, who spent 16 years as managing director of EMI Thailand, and who has worked with the likes of the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Norah Jones and Roxette.
“I want to showcase rising stars, younger artists, the new generation. When you promote a festival with only big names, nobody will know the new artists. And the music will die."
Complementing the Beach Stage was the Open Stage, where six or seven Thai bands played. In the spirit of inclusivity, the Festival remained open to visiting musicians. “(On the first night) we had a Ukrainian trombone player who jumped on stage to play. This is fun!" Jirathiyut enthused.
“The (Tourism Authority of Thailand) asked me to take (the Festival) to another level. I said I’d do it. I’m trying to build the festival with the spirit of the artists, the spirit of the music," he added.
Meanwhile, Chantarachoti is already keen to back the Festival for 2019.
“For Thai Airways, we promote the six senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing, touch and feeling from the heart). One of the senses is sound, and jazz represents that. We’ll be doing the same thing next year. We hope from this that we have more and more visitors each year!"