The Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival (KWJF) in Malaysia provides not just a performance feast for music lovers, but also a wealth of artiste insights for jazz fans and musicians (see my writeup of the inaugural 2017 edition).
KWJF 2017 featured 17 bands: Akoustik Connexion, UKBD Brothers Band, Andy Peterson, Diana Liu, Mellow Motif, The Shanghai Sisters, Ernie Watts, Jeremy Monteiro Organ Trio, Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet, Kunto Aji, Jolynn Chin, Borneo Big Band, Baihana, Lewis Pragasam, John Kaizan Neptune, Sri Hanuraga Trio, Melissa Tham, Sheila Majid, Abdul & The Coffee Theory, and Balawan ‘Magic Fingers.’
The bands also met with media professionals on three days and shared their views on the interpretations of jazz, industry trends, and the role of collaboration. Asif Ben Pishori, KWJF artistic director, and Mark Justin Silvester, KWJF festival director, anchored the discussions between performers and jazz journalists.
Jazz with an Asian touch
Describing their music, the KWJF artistes showed how they are taking jazz to new frontiers in Asia. Jazz is now sung in Tagalog (Baihana), Iban (UKBD Brothers Band), Thai (Mellow Motif), Malay (Sheila Majid), and Mandarin (Diana Liu).
Jazz has fused with Balinese gamelan music (Balawan), south Indian carnatic styles (Lewis Pragasam and Asia Beat), Japanese instrumentation (John Kaizan Neptune), and traditional Indonesian music (Sri Hanuraga Trio with Dira Sugandi).
“It is a privilege to able to see and fuse different music traditions and create something new,” said the vocalists of The Shanghai Sisters.
California native John Kaizan Neptune plays jazz on the Japanese shakuhachi flute. “It is normally a solo instrument and played for meditative moods. But jazz influences from my father, who plays trombone, helped lay the foundation for me to explore new directions for musical instruments,” said John.
“Lots of things are possible with this simple flute. The bamboo flute lends itself well to lots of connections,” he said. He has also invented an hourglass-shaped drum called takeda.
Balawan plays the double-neck electric guitar – in an unusual finger-tapping style, like Stanley Jordan. He performs along with two musicians on Balinese gamelan, taking jazz to new creative frontiers.
Jazz as a career
“Music is indeed fantastic, but the music industry is not so fantastic,” joked John Kaizan Neptune, reflecting a common love-hate relationship between musicians and industry, between the creative and business sides of the media world.
“It is hard to make a living as jazz artistes in the Philippines, but that keeps us on our toes,” said the members of Baihana from Manila. “We explore more every time, even with the same songs. It is always exciting and we never tire,” the vocalists said.
“My day job was giving me nightmares,” joked a vocalist from The Shanghai sisters. “Music gave me joy, and the bookings followed. People listened when they saw my joy,” she explained.
“When I first started playing jazz way back in 1958, my mom and dad were scared to death, they said I would starve to death. 60 years later, people are still saying the same thing about jazz musicians,” joked Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts.
“Music is about making a personal commitment. It was never easy to be a musician, or put together a festival or concert,” he added. Musicians should clearly decide if they want to commit to what they like, or if they want to play music that is profitable – they should set their expectations right and be realistic.
“If you do what you do and become the best at it, then all other things will follow,” Ernie advised.
Some musicians said they also take time out from music to refresh themselves. “I take a break to find inspiration,” said Diana Liu. John Kaizan Neptune said he loves mountaineering and surfing.
“I started mountain biking at age 55, and snowboarding at age 64. I am now 65,” John joked. “But feeling blue is not part of my makeup. I am not down often. I feel lucky to be a musician and to feel that vibration,” he added.
CDs and beyond: tech trends
For decades, having a string of albums (vinyl or CD) has been regarded as milestones of a musician’s journey. Indeed, each album does represent the culmination of a musical project or collaboration.
“I started off with an album a year in my early years, but now do one only when I really need to. Each new album should be very different from the earlier ones,” said John Kaizan Neptune.
But the world is changing, and musicians don’t think of their work only in units of albums. John said he composes music all the time. “And many music listeners don’t even have CD players anymore,” he joked.
Social media is also playing an increasing role in connecting bands with their audiences, or starting their own YouTube channels. Many listeners now discover new music through streaming services like Spotify.
Jazz and fusion
Jazz has fused well with a wide range of other musical genres over the years, ranging from rock to Indian classical music. “Jazz also works well with Western classical music,” said pianist Jolynn Chin from Sarawak.
“You need to know both genres well when you try to fuse two styles,” said Sri Hanuraga from Indonesia. “It then becomes exciting. Jazz always absorbs musical influences from around the world,” he said.
“Jazz itself is an amalgamation of different music types,” explained Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro. For example, John Coltrane’s version of ‘My Favourite Things’ reflects Indian influences. “Jazz is naturally a fusion, has and always will be,” said Jeremy.
The jazz journey
Many artistes described how they first got into jazz, and where they are headed next in their musical journey. “I grew up to the music of Miles, Coltrane and Monk, and I played like that. I realised I had been over-trained in that style,” joked Ernie Watts. He then experimented with jazz fusion with blues and pop.
“I fell in love with jazz after hearing Ahmed Jamal in concert,” said vocalist Natasha Patamapongs from Thai jazz sextet Mellow Motif.
Describing their recent works, some of the musicians described how they are exploring new external collaborations in jazz, while others said they are exploring within themselves. “I have done lots of albums with other musicians, and am now reconnecting with my inner roots,” said John Kaizan Neptune.
Diana Liu said her second album is a compilation of her musical journey over the years, right from her university days. It covers a lot of ground: pop, world music and Latin sound. Jolynn Chin’s recent work is both an exploration of her Chinese roots as well as the larger world outside, covering classical music and even electro.
“Jazz is about expansion as well as consolidation,” said Jeremy Monteiro, describing the journey of guitarist Pat Metheny as an example.
The meaning of jazz
I asked many of the musicians what jazz means to them, and how they are giving back to the jazz movement. “Music is my life. Jazz is experimental. Emotions come out through my music,” said award-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts.
“You play how you feel, without saying it. People create their own story, it is creative for everyone,” he explained. “We want everyone to partake in the creative experience,” said Ernie.
“All musicians respect the masters of all genres. All music is inter-connected. Honour other people’s sounds and become less judgmental,” he advised. “Our purpose of life is to promote understanding and joy. We make people feel better after our performance,” he said.
“Jazz is played differently every single time,” said pianist-composer Jeremy Monteiro. Other forms of music such as Western classical music do have emotion as well, but less variation in performance.
“Jazz opened me up to a whole world of improvisation. It gives me room to express myself and add my own personal touch, and spread the love. This is how music can change you. Jazz is more than entertainment,” said vocalist Natasha from Mellow Motif.
“Jazz is something you can feel, it changed my heart,” said Abdulah Amin Ashari from Indonesia, founder of Abdul & The Coffee Theory. “Jazz is about the future, and for a better future,” he said. “Music is my life, music is everything,” said fellow Indonesian musician Kunto Aji.
“Jazz is freedom. Not everyone can appreciate or play jazz, but if you can it is beautiful,” said the members of Borneo Big Band.
Jazz also lets musicians add a unique personal touch to their compositions. “One of my songs is based on what my dad would say when I went to the airport. He said he would always feel sad when I left on a journey,” recalls vocalist Diana Liu.
A life of jazz
Jazz can indeed be a lifelong calling, as shown at KWJF by veteran musicians like Sheila Majid, Jeremy Monteiro, Ernie Watts, John Kaizan Neptune, and Lewis Pragasam. “I have been on tour for 40 years,” said Ernie.
Their long and inspiring tenure in the world of jazz has also led to endearing and productive partnerships: such as between Jeremy Monteiro and Ernie Watts, as well as John Kaizan Neptune and Lewis Pragasam.
The future of jazz
Many musicians see a good future for jazz, though the 1930s and 1940s are regarded as the ‘golden age’ of jazz when it was mainstream music.
“Jazz is in good hands,” said pianist Jeremy Monteiro, who has helped create the Jazz Association of Singapore (JASS) and also gives numerous talks on jazz history and appreciation.
It is certainly possible to stimulate youth to listen to jazz. “Play with the youth! They are energetic, excited and exciting. Our young drummer is 12 years old, and has no girlfriend issues,” joked Balawan from Bali. Trends like Nu Jazz and Electro Jazz are attracting new and younger audiences also.
“We have 160 musicians at this festival. The more time we spend together, the more we can collaborate,” said Asif Ben Pishori, KWJF artistic director. “We want to hear new sounds,” said Agus Setiawan, founder of jazz media WartaJazz.
Agus organises an astonishing 67 jazz festivals each year in Indonesia. He suggested that a jazz album in the Iban language be recorded, and maybe even a regular online channel of jazz from Asia could be launched.
After such stimulating discussions and interviews, the media meets were followed by fantastic stage sets featuring the jazz bands. We look forward to the next edition of the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival already, on September 28-30, 2018 – with its mix of music performances and artiste dialogues!
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Written and photographed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com .