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Charlie Haden and Quartet West

March 13, 2011 2:25 AM | Comments (0)

You have to be thankful for the Mosaic Music festival. Decades ago, it was unusual for big acts to come to Singapore as part of a series; now the young generation can take it for granted.

It seemed like that was happening, as R and I looked around us, wondering why one-third of the seats had yet to be filled at 7.30pm (the appointed time of the concert) despite this being a triple Grammy award-winning act.

“Is the jazz scene in Singapore truly dying?” I asked myself, echoing the laments of my jazz piano teacher, Victor Pillay, who himself was a live jazz musician for many years. I didn’t want to believe it. Looking at the chunks of empty seats in the most expensive section, it looked like the price points for tickets were not calibrated well enough. The back row behind us was completely empty as well. Fortunately, more latecomers trickled in throughout the performance so it didn’t look too bad in the end.

Around me were mostly expats and some yuppie Singaporeans - those in their thirties and above. Among the expats were quite a number of grey and white heads, and from their accents, they were probably American. Definitely not representative of the Singapore population, whose tastes, I imagine, are much more mainstream.

Unusually, the concert started late, so that allowed for latecomers to be seated. Finally Charlie Haden and his band appeared on stage. As a relatively casual listener of Charlie Haden’s music (mainly the works done in collaboration with Pat Metheny), I was surprised to see how slowly he moved on stage. As the artiste in residence for this festival, he thanked the Mosaic team for making his stay a good one, and also praised the medical team at Raffles Hospital, who helped remove his kidney stone. [Turns out that he just underwent the procedure the day before - making me appreciate all the more his efforts on stage that night!]

It was announced that this was the band’s 25th year anniversary, which is remarkable. I was reminded again of Haden’s age when he announced that he was performing a song he recorded in 1957. I recalled a writeup which mentioned he played with jazz greats like John Coltrane - long departed.

Haden and his bandmen played First Song, something he wrote for his wife, a calypso, and another piece on what I think was either ‘Hello My Lovely’ or ‘Sophisticated Ladies’, which was the title of his latest CD. There was another piece that meandered into what reminded me of Coltrane’s Ascension, which I didn’t like very much because it gave me prolonged indigestion. But overall, it was a pleasing performance which garnered two standing ovations from most of the audience.

Every now and then, Haden humorously made a sales pitch for his latest CD, which features female singers like Diana Krall and Norah Jones. His spoken humour matched his deliberately offbeat pace on the bass, which gave texture to the music.

What perked me up most were the numbers towards the end - his little ‘surprise’ for us, which turned out to be Miles Davis’ Blue in Green. It began very much like the original, almost as if Coltrane was playing the tenor sax - but of course, Haden’s Quartet infused the rest of the piece with its own style.

Overall, it was pleasant, but now I understand what a fellow jazz lover meant when he told me he was skipping this concert (despite being a serious amateur bassist and fan of Haden). Don’t expect a high-energy visual performance from this quartet - just kick up your heels and listen.

As always, I just wish that this sort of thing could be done in a cosy little jazz cafe, not in a formal concert hall.

My new jazz band

September 4, 2010 1:38 AM | Comments (0)

We just met last Saturday and we’ll be having 2 more rehearsals before the school concert. We’re so new, we don’t even have a name yet.

Sounds drastic? Well, we’ve been practising on our own and finally are merging our efforts and working out the kinks.

We’ll be playing two jazz numbers - one’s an old favourite that’s been remade recently, and the other will be something I composed. This will be my third school concert (held every 2 years) and also the third time I will be performing my own song.

This time, it won’t be an instrumental piece, but a song with full lyrics. I won’t be singing (though I’d like to!) but we do have a young man who will be doing the honours.

Revisiting my classical past

December 1, 2009 1:06 AM | Comments (0)

Before I switched to jazz piano, I was a classical pianist. My mother found me at the Yamaha organ, playing a song by ear. She said I was just 2 years old; I thought I was closer to 4 as I had to be big enough to climb up the seat. Whatever the case, my parents thought I was a genius, although at this point in time, a certain namesake of mine seems to be having more professional success with her violin ;-)

My namesake, whom the world knows (her initials being VM-N), was born a few months after me; her mother apparently visited my mother and me in the maternity ward shortly after I was born, and asked what my English and Chinese names were - and voila! We so happen to share the same names!

Anyway, I began my journey of classical music on a positive note. I had a very encouraging teacher in Grade 1, and obtained a distinction. However, she migrated and I was given a very fierce teacher from Grades 3-7. I’ve never liked practicing much in the first place and it seemed that more hours were needed with each increase in grade. Especially during the years I was selected to perform in school concerts.

This teacher didn’t just knock my knuckles when I forgot to ‘curve my fingers’ - she grabbed my hands until my knuckles cracked, and pulled my hair and hit my head whenever I made a mistake. I hung on, getting Merits and another Distinction. But by the time I reached Grade 7, the unmentionable happened - I scraped through my exam with a pass.

Up to that point, my requests to change teachers went unheeded by my parents (Aside: I doubt the new generation of parents would allow their kids to be punished in such a way). I left that music school, VDMS - the very thought of which still sends a slight shiver down my spine - and never looked back. After several years of being abused, I was almost amazed to be with a teacher who did not hit me but spoke to me like an adult.

By this time, I was in JC1 (I had skipped piano exams during my O Levels) so things were saner. I took the Grade 8 exam and passed well.

After my A Levels, I started work on my Diploma in music. While still in Singapore, I moved to a more advanced teacher and completed 1 and a half pieces. Then I moved to Bristol for my undergraduate degree. But studying law and music at the same time was quite a daunting task. Plus, finding a good piano teacher in the South West of England when you don’t have a car, proved to be quite difficult. So I decided to forget all about it instead. I had had enough with classical piano and all the high expectations that went with it.

Instead, I developed my taste for jazz, with the help of a few discerning friends, and never looked back. Back in Singapore, I was introduced to VP, my jazz piano teacher and mentor for a few years. And I’m still lovin’ it. Jazz didn’t judge or ostracise you; it was what you wanted it to be. And if you didn’t like the original tune, you could change it and not get your head smacked in.

So in my case, pain is associated with classical music, and musical emancipation with jazz (which is rather fitting, seeing how the blues/jazz evolved from slavery).

But it isn’t necessarily logical that I should view it that way, is it? The self-motivation books I’m reading now are asking me to challenge my perceptions and associations.

So I dug up my old piano exam pieces just now and played through them. Funny how easy they are, after not playing them for so many years.

Feeling braver, I played Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 2. I last performed this at the ballroom of the Swallow Royal Hotel in Bristol in 1997. It brought back good memories. While it was harder than my earlier pieces, I started to remember my fingering and the melody. It came back to life for me and now I want to get it up to performance standard again.

More challenging pieces I’ve played, are about Turkish rondos: For classical music, it’s Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, for the speed and intensity - the feeling that all the fingers in my hands have to be banging on a different key at breakneck speed. That was one of my Diploma pieces. For jazz, it’s Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turc, which I performed in concert in 2005.

Eventually I’d like to relive the moments I played difficult pieces such as these and stretched myself.

At the very least, I’m starting to enjoy classical music again.

Throughout my life and work, I’ve found that ratings are subjective. You can use quantitative methods to make the methodology more objective, but often these are based on qualitative assessments as well. Of course, if you are looking at something very mechanical, like quality control for widget production, then there’s little to argue about. But for most other areas of life, where a human touch is involved, things are subjective.

Which brings us to a subject that’s one of my all-time favourites (and probably yours as well): Music.

Being a music lover, I listen to a lot of genres. As my collection has grown to over 8,000 tracks, I keep it organised by rating and sorting songs into manual playlists. I also have Smart Playlists which automatically add, remove or re-order songs based on certain criteria. So accurate ratings are needed to keep everything in check.

Using iTunes, songs can be rated from 1 to 5 stars (or unrated, which is 0 stars). Initially, we may rate things quite subjectively. On a day that we’re tired of hearing songs by a certain artist or genre, we may rate those songs more poorly. We may also feel obliged to rate certain songs more highly simply because they’re at the top of the charts - even if we don’t like the music as much, ourselves. But after a while, we start to figure out what we really want out of this.

Occasionally, I even find myself ‘moderating’ my own ratings - just like how some wine aficionados re-rate a certain vintage as time goes by and tastes have matured. From what I’ve gathered of my own practices, this is how I rate music:

0 stars (35% of my collection) - Neutral or Not Rated for some reason or other. These could be audio recordings I’ve made, podcast files, sermons, speeches, lectures, audiobooks, computer game music - all of which are not inherently ‘bad’ - I simply don’t have an opinion of them, nor do I want them added to any Smart playlist. I also generally avoid rating Gospel & Religious music because I have a different reason for listening to it. If songs were people: This would be the majority of people I may have met but have not really formed a strong impression of, positive or otherwise

1 stars (<0.1%) - Yuck! Why did I buy this in the first place? Probably because it was part of an album. A 1-star song might be deleted from my hard drive because I’d never want to listen to it again. For this reason I don’t have many 1 star songs. People I wouldn’t want to see again

2 stars (about 5%) - Below average songwriting and/or performance. Most likely will be unchecked in iTunes so it won’t go into my iPod/iPhone. This includes a few bad apples by some of my favourite artistes. So, no holds are barred. People on the periphery of my radar - may interact occasionally with them but may not really want to forge a stronger relationship with them

3 stars (about 30%) - Not bad. May include some smash hits that other people may have loved but which I find just OK. Could be pleasant-sounding but boring. Periodically, some 3 star songs may be moved up to 4 stars if I was too hasty in my earlier judgment, if my tastes have matured, or if the song grew on me over time. Decent people whom I’d stay in touch with. As I get to know them better, I will learn more about them and revise my opinions about them.

4 stars (about 28%) - Stuff I like and would be proud to put on any playlist and play at a party. May or may not be a smash hit, but good in my books. The tunes must be fairly catchy, have a nice modulation or something else unusual to help them stand out. Again, some songs may be reviewed over time and bumped up or down a star. People I would call friends, not acquaintances. These include colleagues (current and past) who I get along well with

5 stars (<1.5%) - Music that gives me a high whenever I hear it. Songs I cannot do without, and can listen to anytime. Hard to get tired of. I probably know many of these song lyrics by heart - or almost. I can probably play them by ear, too. Many are old favourites while others are fairly new additions but are instantly likeable and endearing (as with friends and wine). Very occasionally, some 5 star songs will be taken down a notch if I’ve grown tired of them. My closest group of friends, from different walks of life. Mostly those I’ve met a while ago, but I’m open to adding new people.

In summary, when rating songs (or appraising anything else, for that matter), especially if you want a coherent system:

  • Be true to yourself. This is especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. Other people will have a different idea about things, but don’t get affected by this. It’s your stuff. You can always create a playlist that’s popular with mainstream folks, to please the crowds at parties.
  • Be consistent. As human beings, we can never be 100% consistent at any point in time. But we can review and fine-tune what we’ve done before, so that a certain standard is established across the board.
  • Allow some flexibility. Times change. Tastes change. After several years, you may find yourself relooking a certain artiste or genre. Do it some justice by reviewing the ratings. Again, apply 1) and 2): Make the system adapt to your new tastes, and keep reviewing what you’ve done before.

Note: Points 2) and 3) are not contradictory but complementary. Act consistently on a flexible framework.

Ultimately, as with many things in life, such as good friends and wine, the test of attrition - being exposed to the subject over a period of time - will help you decide if something is worth keeping or reviewing.

Maxwell's new album

June 26, 2009 5:29 AM


About 10 years ago, as a university student, I was influenced by the likes of nu soul artistes such as Maxwell and Erykah Badu. They have greatly influenced how I write and produce some of my own music. Now, Maxwell is about to launch his new album, BLACKsummer’snight on 7 July after an 8 year hiatus, and I’m looking forward to it.

You can listen to a new track each day and check out his official website. Of course, I’m already a Facebook fan and following him on Twitter, along with over 18,000 others.

What made Maxwell stand out, according to a review I read years ago, was that unlike many other black artistes of his time who sang about sleeping with many women, Maxwell’s songs were about faithfulness and monogamy. However, his sultry vocals and smooth vibes gave his albums a seductiveness good enough to make out with. He may not be as well-known as other artistes but he’s one of my favourites.

Looking out for a new Maxwell album feels like deja vu to me, especially since I’m a student once again. I just hope he doesn’t take as long to produce his next album.

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