The Malaysian Jazz Project

What is Malaysian jazz?

Malaysian jazz is basically a sub-genre of jazz that incorporates Malaysian musical elements in terms of melodic composition, rhythms and instrumentation.

Why did you embark on a Malaysian jazz project?

Well, in the many years that I have played jazz, it has often been a dream of mine to do something like this. The world has heard of different jazz sub-genres like Afro-Cuban Jazz, Latin Jazz, European Free Jazz, Jazz Rock, Gypsy Jazz, Bossanova… the list goes on, but all these sub-genres have come out of jazz being influenced by various music cultures around the world. Knowing how rich this country’s musical culture is, I have always dreamed about coming out with music that is ‘Malaysian flavoured’, something us Malaysians can perform at international festivals that is distinctively ‘ours’. To put it simply, if Brazil had their samba and bossanova, and Cuba had their Cuban jazz, why couldn’t a culturally rich country such as Malaysia have Malaysian Jazz?

What was the inspiration behind Malaysian jazz?

Like I said, it has always been something at the ‘back of my head’, but there were a few factors that pushed me into actually doing something about it. About 2 years ago, I chanced upon this educational journal article by Nisa Jähnichen that lamented about how jazz was widely performed in the Klang Valley, but most of the musicians (me included) were just copying, or mimicking what was being done in the international jazz world. We were merely ‘doing jazz’, as opposed to ‘making jazz’. Sadly, the article presents a valid point!

The other ‘inspiration’ was borne in two separate jazz festivals. I was playing in the Bangkok Jazz Festival in the 90s with GRP artiste Eric Marienthal. When I looked around, everybody was playing more or less the ‘same kind of jazz’, but of course the American acts had a slight edge in their music, because this was their brand of jazz. We were playing ‘their’ music. This inspired me to create music like ‘Malacca Sun’ in the following years, but that was soon left ‘on the side’ as I concentrated on the money-making side of the music business, pop music.

Then a few years ago I got the chance to play in the Jakarta-based Java Jazz Festival with the David Foster band. I noticed that there were many Indonesian bands that had already incorporated the Indonesian ‘sound’ into their music, and they sounded great doing this. This was their music! That was the moment the light switch reignited. This was something I wanted, (maybe even needed) to do, lead this ‘push’ that hopefully inspires other Malaysian musicians to create our brand of music.

Why choose jazz, instead of say a version of Kpop called M-pop?

First off, K-pop is certainly not my ‘field of expertise’. Who knows, someone else could do that?!

But in the last 18 months, I did quite a bit of research on this subject. I found that jazz music is essentially a syncretic art-form, meaning it is open to the merging and/or assimilation of other music or culture. Take blues for example, which is probably the oldest known jazz form we recognize. Blues started with the slave population in America, and was an assimilation of African music and culture with the music and instruments found in the US. So right from the very beginning, jazz could be said to have been a fusion of two cultures, an assimilation of two music worlds. The same happened when jazz fused with Brazilian rhythms (Bossanova, Samba), or Cuban instruments (Cuban jazz) or even rock music (jazz rock).

So bringing this back to our Malaysian context, we too have the expertise, tools, musicians, and ethnic traditional instruments and rhythms to do something similar. This ‘movement’ started with people like the late ‘Mr. Gambus’ Farid Ali, fusion band AkashA and to some extent, Mohram. I’m just taking it a little deeper to approach this from the compositional aspects of melodies and the arrangement aspects like incorporating Malay rhythms like inang, asli etc together with instruments like the gendang, seruling bamboo, and then merging them with classic jazz compositional tools. The possibilities are endless, really.

How can our country Malaysia benefit from something like Malaysian jazz?

For starters, I’d like Malaysian jazz to be another variety of music that we can offer to the international music market. Malaysian pop has yet to be overly successful in terms of being exported to other pop markets. On the other side of the scale, pure Malaysian traditional and folk music may also be difficult to market to an international music market that tends to head towards modern and trendy music, rather than the other way around. Jazz may not be mass market, but it commands a loyal following, and these jazz fans are always open to a different sound. Malaysian jazz would not be ‘out of place’ at international jazz festivals around the world. In fact, that would be my next goal, to go and perform Malaysian jazz at international jazz festivals. 

Closer to home, imagine tourists touching down the tarmac of KLIA and hearing Malaysian jazz playing on the plane while it taxis towards the gate? Next time you fly, pay attention to what they play. Garuda plays some incredible ‘Indonesian-Javanese’ music on their planes, and straight away, you just KNOW you have landed in Indonesia.

Most Malaysians will be familiar with the ‘traditional’ music they perform at cultural shows, right? The ones with the fake kompangs merged with pop-style music… you know, the music you hear on ‘Cuti-Cuti Malaysia’ ads? No real harm in that, but would any tourist buy that music, bring it home and tell their friends, “Check this out, this is Malaysian music!”? On the other hand, I know of international music fans who have purchased Indonesian jazz music they found in Java Jazz. I think people still go for something that they can relate to, and jazz provides that bridge that offers a sense of familiarity to international music lovers.

Who were the musicians involved in this project?

Thankfully, I managed to gather my ‘dream team’ of Kamrul Hussin (rebana/gendang), Mohar of Mohram (seruling bambu), John Thomas (drums), Fly Halizor (bass) and Steve Thornton (Latin percussion). I say ‘thankfully’ because these guys are so high in demand, it was quite a nightmare getting them together for those few days in the studio. My next challenge is to get them again for the live performances. Anyway, you will get to see them in action when we release the music videos soon.

Why only select Malay instruments for this Malaysian jazz project?

Jazz is a highly specialized form of music, and it takes people who have a certain understanding of the genre to perform it. On top of that, one of the ‘prerequisites’ of jazz is the need to have the ability to improvise. So in a nutshell, I needed musicians who were really good at what they do, musicians who understand what jazz is, as well as be able to improvise. Quite honestly, I don’t know too many musicians from Indian or Chinese traditional backgrounds who can pull this off. Also, I think because of the exposure I’ve had with Malay music and musicians, I have a better understanding of the gendang and seruling bambu, than let’s say, a tabla, sape, or an er-hu, so I’m able to write and conceptualize their parts better. Still, this is only the first step in the Malaysian Jazz journey for me. I’d love to go on and explore doing this with musicians and instruments from the other ethnic backgrounds in the future.

Looking forward, what would you envision for this Malaysian jazz genre?

Quite simply, I would like to see it grow as a genre of Malaysian music. Hopefully, other homegrown musicians can also do it and add their different Malaysian flavors to the music. To this end, I’ve taken on writing a research paper on the complexities of creating Malaysian jazz, to serve as a kind of ‘manual’ that may help others who might want to embark on a similar journey. Malaysian jazz isn’t so much a personal project for self-satisfaction, but something I hope is a way of giving back to the industry that has blessed me with quite a bit, and maybe provide an impetus for others to do the same.

Keeping Music Real.

Watch the ‘Many, But One’ music video here.