Nial Djuliarso – The Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki (2011)


Artist : Nial Djuliarso
Album :
The Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki
Released Date :
April 2011
Label :
Omega Pacific Production

Ismail Marzuki passed away 53 years ago but many of his songs remain classic until today. That proofs him as one of the greatest legendary composers ever lived in Indonesia. Through his relatively short life span from 1914 to 1958, he composed more than 240 songs. Ismail Marzuki was also declared as a national hero in 2004. He didn’t stand in the frontline during the independent war but he fought through his inspiring and motivating songs and lyrics. Many of his songs inspired people to keep fighting for freedom. That way he earned the honor to be a national hero. It is sad enough that many of the youngsters today don’t remember him much anymore. They might know the songs but they forget the writer. That’s why it’s wonderful when knowing about a very talented young pianist who’s now staying and pursuing his career in New York paying tribute to the legend in his third album. It’s Nial Djuliarso with a brand new album called “The Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki”.

By now the name Nial Djuliarso should already be familiar to the jazz lovers in the country. Though he is now staying and pursuing his career in New York, he often visits Indonesia for playing in many occasions, including a constant appearance at the Java Jazz Festival. Outside Indonesia, Nial has graced many prestigious international stages such as the Weill recital hall at Carnegie Hall in New York; the North Sea Jazz Festival in Hague; The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C; the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and the Sarasota Jazz Festival. His debut album “Nial Djuliarso at Juilliard” was released when he was still at the last semester of his study at Juilliard Music School in New York, the school he enrolled since September 2004 right after he received his Bachelor of Music Degree from Berklee Music College, Boston. This album followed by the second one, “New Day New Hope” in which he presented many of his own compositions.

He’s not a diamond in a mud anymore now, he’s already become one of the most distinguished jazz pianists in Indonesian music scene today, representing the new generation. He’s still young but has played with the wide array of honored musicians such as Kenny Barron, Danilo Perez, Hank Jones, Joe Lovano, Carl Allen, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Rufus Reid, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Jimmy Cobb, Eric Alexander, David Hazeltine, Ernestine Anderson, Peter Bernstein, Marcus Belgrave, Benny Golson, Steve Davis, Wycliffe Gordon, Ben Wolfe, Jimmy Heath, Lewis Nash, Horace Silver, Billy Taylor, Winard Harper, Chip Jackson, Gary Peacock, Tiger Okoshi, Vincent Herring, Hal Crook, Ray Drummond, Mark Turner, James Moody and Curtis Fuller. He played with them while he was still at Berklee and Juilliard, either when they came to give a masterclass, different music camps and competitions and also at different jazz clubs.  Other than these names, he has also played with Jeremy Pelt, Bruce Harris, Gary Burton and Fukushi Tainaka. About this very rare chance, Nial has something to say. “That’s one of the benefits of taking a formal music school today: the school will hopefully get great musicians to come and teach, and you can meet them there. You can still hear them at the clubs and try to introduce yourself. I think the best thing is if you’re recommended by someone, then usually the artist feels more comfortable to get to know you.” We can hope so much for the future of our jazz from him. He’s been showing persistency, never ending spirit and creative ideas, not to mention his ability in playing piano, composing among other talents he possessed. For all those gifts, Nial credits God and his parents, Tripudjo and Vera Djuliarso for bestowing an appreciation for music since childhood.

Many artists have covered one or two Ismail Marzuki’s classics, but only a few that actually dug the jazz soul of him, even fewer that making it into the recordings. As Nial said, “Musicians in Indonesia might have already done it but there’s no reason why they can’t play Indonesian songs on their gigs specifically for an instrument. I’m sure there are many Indonesian songs that are adaptable to be played in a jazz setting such as ‘Pemuda’ by Chaseiro. I think this can work as a samba. My point is, in selecting songs to play, that we don’t always have to play American songs, as we also have our own library of music to choose from, and this is good for the pride of our people.” Putting that in mind, Nial has done such a wonderful work in rearranging these masterpieces of Ismail.

There’s a little story of his first encounter with Ismail’s work, as Nial shared in the CD booklet. Nial started with songs from the Great American Songbook when he first learned jazz back in 1996. Basically these songs were written from the period of ’30s to ’60s from the greatest American composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and others. Nial has been in love with these collections, even admitted that he still learn new ones until today, for the simple song form, beautiful melody and chords, and also great lyrics.

Nial Djuliarso presented the Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki at Java Jazz Festival 2011

After dipping into these gems in 2003, he realized that he wanted to learn some Indonesian songs, something that he only knew a few at that time. From there, he met Oom Yong (Yongki Nusantara), a senior pianist and also a living jazz historical resource as he was involved in promoting the concert of Nial in Bandung. To Nial’s surprise, he has a lot sheet music for Indonesian songs, particularly Ismail Marzuki. Nial knew a few, but there were many of Ismail’s songs that he has never heard before. Oom Yong sent those partitures to him later on. Then Nial recalled, “If he had sent sheet music from other Indonesian composer(s), I would’ve ended up recording that”, but I’m happy that I found Ismail Marzuki and was able to learn more about him, and it’s good for me to learn the history of my country.” When Nial tried to play them, he found out most of the songs appeared to be good vehicles for improvisation, mostly because of the song form. “Ismail wrote a lot of his music using the same structures as most American songs known as The Great American songbook (a 32-bar song form), usually AABA (with 8 bars for each section) or AB (with 16 bars for each section)” said Nial. From that moment, Nial promised himself that he would record an album of Ismail Marzuki’s music, something that he finally made it real 8 years later. “I started playing Ismail Marzuki songs in 2003. As you may see that it takes me about 8 years to finish this new album.” he said. Some pieces of his touch on Ismail Marzuki’s songs could be tasted in both of the previous albums, “Juwita Malam” in Nial Djuliarso at Juilliard (2006) and “Sabda Alam” in New Day New Hope (2008). But now he finally managed to present one full album paying tribute to the legendary maestro. Nial’s pretty delighted with the album and said “I think in a way, maybe God wanted me to record this album, because Oom yong sent me the music, and my aunt Trisutji Kamal gave me the biography called Musik, Tanah Air, dan Cinta, and someone in the Indonesian embassy in Russia requested “Juwita Malam”. They were all signs that I should learn more about Ismail.”

Having the passion to bring Ismail Marzuki’s songs reappeared again in a special way; he did a brilliant job in recomposing the songs. We asked him whether it was difficult or not for him to do it, and he answered “no, it wasn’t difficult to rearrange the songs. I think because the song form is the same as songs from the “Great American Songbook”, something that Nial has been living with from the very first time he touched jazz. One thing that can be clearly seen from the start to finish, Nial treated these classic songs with lots of respect and love. Many have known how Ismail Marzuki was influenced by jazz in composing his masterpieces, but only now we can see the evidence through Nial’s magic retouch on them in recordings. The songs were originally beautiful, but Nial makes them shinier than ever. Like polishing the diamond, Nial brings out the sparkles in a new jazz glows, something that really make the jazz soul of Ismail Marzuki shine right on the surface. Nial presented it for the first time at the Java Jazz Festival 2011 and gained enthusiastic responses from his audiences. (Check out our report of that moment here).

Performing at Java Jazz Festival 2011 with Indrawan Tjhin and Shandy Satya

While many of the Indonesian music listeners tend to have albums with vocals inside, Nial decided to carry on his concept from the very first album, that is, to make a fully instrumental package. We asked him about this, and here’s his answer. “I enjoy playing with good vocalists, but for this project I decided to do it as an instrumental, because I didn’t feel that I needed to have a vocalist. Ideally, the decision to have a vocalist, or any other instrument, for a project, should be based on musical reason, and not because you think the audience/listener may not like it as much, if you were to do an all-instrumental album, or for any other reason. I know there seems to be this issue about instrumental and vocal albums in Indonesia. If you look at one of my idols Oscar Peterson, for example, he did many instrumental albums such as Oscar Peterson Plays the Cole Porter Songbook etc, and I enjoyed them just fine. I didn’t feel like I was missing a vocalist. If you feel strongly about your musical concept, hopefully you will find audience/listener who will enjoy your work.” We say it’s a right decision. Lately we’ve seen a positive progress in the market. If most listeners prefer to listen to vocals before, now they are more open to accept instrumental albums. Many of the fully instrumental albums were sold well in our online store, as well as in other outlets. Aside from that, it’s better to let Nial does what he knows best. The first two of his albums did great in the market and we have no doubt this one will do so too, or even better.

Othman Djuliarso, Nial’s younger brother on drums

For this very special project, Nial brought his own brother and multi national friends to join in. On drums was his brother, Othman Djuliarso. Starting with digesting the music of Art Blakey, he decided to take drumming lesson where he was taught by many great drummers from Edi Syakroni, Gilang Ramadhan, Aksan Sjuman, Sambudi, Taufan Genarso, Jacub Sianipar to the living legend Benny Mustafa van Diest. Othman received a scholarship to study in Berklee’s Summer Program for 5 weeks where he learned from Kenwood Dennard, Vinx Larry Finn, Sergio Bellotti, Robert Kaufman and Jackie Santos. He landed on 2008 UTK Jazz Festival in Knoxville where he had the opportunity to receive hands-on feedbacks from Keith Brown and Donald Brown. Othman is on the right path in following Nial’s footsteps as a successful Indonesian-born jazz musician. On sax was Ken Fowser. He’s a saxophonist originally from Philadelphia that now resides in New York. He started to play music at 11, and a year later he found his passion in sax through his father’s old saxophone. Throughout his musical studies he got the chance to learn from masters such as Eric Alexander, Grand Steward, John Swana, Ralph Bowen and Harold Mabern. Ken’s performance can be enjoyed monthly at Chris’ Jazz Cafe as well as many other venues around Philadelphia and South Jersey Area. While active in live gig, he has recorded an album with vibraphonist Behn Gilece entitled “Full View”, released in January 2009. Moving on, the bass was guarded by native Korean Joonsam Lee. Coming from Seoul, he started with electric guitar after listening to Jaco Pastorius at the age of 19. He soon switched to contrabass with the influence of Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Christian McBride and Avishai Cohen. Moving to New York, he studied in N.Y.U where he  had a privilege studying and performing with Joe Lovano, Brian Lynch, Ralph Alessi, Kenny Werner, John Scofield and Wayne Krantz just to name a few. Having played in many jazz festivals around the world, now he has his own group, Joonsam Lee Quintet besides active as a season player for a wide array of materials and musicians. Then last but not least, Reed Taylor was in charge for engineering, mixing and mastering the session. The album was recorded at Lofish Studio, New York.

Now let’s dig The Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki. Nial starts grandly with “Indonesia Pusaka” in smooth bluesy swinging style. Ken Fowser carries on the melody nicely with his sax all the way with some cool improvisation together with Nial. Right from this opening you will directly be amazed on how Nial brings the jazz soul of Ismail Marzuki out like no others. It’s time to have a relaxing bossa touch with “Aryati”. After these two relaxing songs, Nial changes the path to go boppin hard on “Halo-Halo Bandung” written in 1946 and becomes classic ever since. The patriotic nuance in this song now comes out in energetic lighting speed rhythm, along with wide room of improvisations and delicious tradings. Lots of stunning maneuvers can be found in this one. The beautiful classic comes next, “Saputangan Dari Bandung Selatan.” Nial and the rest of the players capture all the memory contained in this song very well and deliver it sweet.

From left to right: Nial Djuliarso, Ken Fowser, Othman Djuliarso and Joonsam Lee

“Selendang Sutra” and “Bandung Selatan di Waktu Malam” are played in lovely jazz standard. Joonsam Lee’s acoustic bass sound has a big role in both songs. The happy song “Kopral Jono” is once again brought in lively rhythm. Othman is busy once again in this song, even got a part where he does a solo drumming. Ismail Marzuki’s gold from 1944 “Rayuan Pulau Kelapa” is played in such a classy way. Once again Nial and the rest of musicians get a wide playground in the next song, “Jangan Ditanya”.  This song becomes a showcase for the band to have lots of fun, including delightful part when they do tradings. “Kunang-Kunang” is brought once again in a classy and charming way. The album ends gloriously with “Sepasang Mata Bola”, another masterpiece from 1946 where Nial pours all the beauty by himself in a very lovely solo piano.

Nial Djuliarso did a brilliant job in rearranging Ismail Marzuki’s gold to bring out the jazz soul of him. Beautiful compositions were clearly made based on full respect and love. Othman Djuliarso, Ken Fowser, Joonsam Lee and Reed Taylor took their parts really well to make this album stand as a classic for a long time. If Ismail Marzuki were alive, he would greatly appreciate this album, even might have jumped to play together with the boys. He’s now smiling from heaven to see a brilliant Indonesian generation give him a lot of respect, someone who understands the jazz side of his soul and now presents it for us to feel. If you’re a Marzuki Ismail’s admirer, Nial Djuliarso’s fan, someone who are passionate in jazz instrumental delight or longing to listen to Nial’s jazzy touch on Ismail Marzuki’s gems after watching him at Java Jazz Festival 2011, this album is absolutely a must. This is a lovely gift from Nial that should make us all as Indonesian proud.

Nial Djuliarso : The Jazz Soul of Ismail Marzuki featuring:
Nial Djuliarso (piano)
Othman Djuliarso (drum)
Joonsam Lee (contrabass)
Ken Fowser (saxophone)
Reed Taylor (engineering, mixing, mastering)

1. Indonesia Pusaka
2. Aryati
3. Halo – Halo Bandung
4. Saputangan Dari Bandung Selatan
5. Selendang Sutra
6. Bandung Selatan Di Waktu Malam
7. Kopral Jono
8. Rayuan Pulau Kelapa
9. Jangan Ditanya
10. Kunang – Kunang
11. Sepasang Mata Bola

The album is available at our online store:

Reviewed by: Riandy Kurniawan
Proofreader: Alhenri Wijaya
Photos (except the Java Jazz Festival 2011 session) are provided by Nial Djuliarso and Omega Pacific Production, used by permission