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Soul Searching in Sunway

  • March 24, 2005

By Chan Siew Lian

Fingers, minus the Soul

Avanti Friday Nite Jazz featuring Soul Fingerz, 11 Feb 2005, at Avanti Italian-American Ristorante, Sunway Lagoon Resort Hotel

On the third day of Chinese New Year, I traded rambling discourses about my marital potential in favour of a jazzy night-out with friends. It was a terrible, terrible mistake.

Like most mistakes, it started out a brilliant idea. We reached Avanti to find its kitchen crew serenading diners with a Spanish guitar, cooking utensils and harmonies oozing out from every greasy pore. They sounded better than anything on the menu, which incidentally, does not cater to poor starving writers or the average student. Seated at a candlelit table with crayons and mah-jong paper to doodle on, we couldn’t wait for the show to start.

Then the band Soul Fingerz, comprising bassist Fariz, drummer Jimmy, guitarist David, pianist/keyboardist Savy, and Bruce on brass took to the stage with an instrumental piece. After vocalist Noryn joined in on the second song, I realised what a long night lay ahead.

To help those reading, I have recorded my main grievances in point form.

  1. “Am I sexy?” is not a synonym for “Hello”

It is a shame when a singer is more obsessed with herself than she is in her audience. It seemed that Noryn’s idea of warming up to her audience was traumatising my 18-year-old friend with “Am I sexy?” before providing details of her new top.

Common sense (or for the masses, American Idol) has taught us that upcoming artists need to work harder to prove their worth. Although there wasn’t enough energy in the performance to start a Kancil, much less a kapchai, Noryn does have a mature voice suited for the soul music she sings. However, Noryn needs to grow as a performer, having confidence in the person behind the voice and the sexy top. Trying to impress young boys is a feeble cop-out, especially if you have some talent.

  1. Crayons shouldn’t be more entertaining than live jazz

As the band played on, doodling filled in the many awkward spaces between our expectations and reality. The stage was set for a memorable evening – a cosy venue, good stage set-up and an even better sound system, yet we weren’t impressed. There was no ‘wow’ factor, no oomph to excite even a fly. The delivery of songs like ‘Boy from Ipanema’, ‘Smooth Operator’ and ‘Fever’ was in one word: boring.

I’d always imagined jazz to incorporate some degree of improvisation. Chemistry. Skill. Taking a song and running riot with it. Soul Fingerz did almost none of the above. The aloofness among members was unusual. And for most of the 2-hour slot, they hardly progressed beyond a warm-up session.

The one saving grace was Jimmy the drummer, who played well and actually looked like he was enjoying it. The bassist wasn’t bad either – although he could have tried taking more risks. I’d recommend smiling exercises and a motivational camp for the rest.

  1. Performers play to borrowed ears. Treat them with care

In recent years, jazz appreciation has been on the rise, thanks to support from corporate sponsors, venues, festivals and the media (illegal downloads also help in the education process). This is good news for the local jazz scene, but those involved shouldn’t take the exposure for granted by settling for mediocrity. Unless they aspire to be background dining music.

That night, half of those at Avanti disappeared before the last set was over. My friends stuck around till the end even though they were bored. I felt bad. I owed them better music. Worse, did the future of live music belong to some singing chefs? I certainly wasn’t in a hurry to find out.

Jom Jeep!

Avanti Friday Nite Jazz featuring Jeep Jazz Trio, 11 Mac 2005, at Avanti Italian-American Ristorante, Sunway Lagoon Resort Hotel

Exactly a month later, I returned to Avanti with a different group of friends and a slight paranoia I would be losing all my pals by midnight. The band scheduled had a dubious name, and an even more dubious description: ‘The Penang-based Jeep Jazz Trio are music educators by day and jazz musicians by night. They have a sound rooted in rhythm & blues.”

Well, I am glad to report my friends are still with me. Jeep Jazz Trio (JJT), led by Jeep (Razif Mohd) on piano, Zaki Anion bass, and Jasmi Budin @Amy on drums, were, in today’s terms, “da bomb”.

I’m not saying that these guys were the best jazz musicians I’ve seen. Or that they kept exploding on stage. What I do mean, is that JJT were a pleasure to watch and listen to. They showed how this complex form can be fun and accessible, without compromising their skills, and made audiences feel comfortable enough to want to come back. I hear that some fans regularly journey to Penang from Kedah and Perlis to catch their gigs.

And again, in point form:

  1. Playing the piano can keep you fit

The piano was in trouble. From where we sat, Jeep looked psychotic – fingers flying all over the keys, hammering every last note out of the instrument. In a great display of dexterity, Jeep also entertained the audience by growing a third hand, i.e. banging the higher register with his right foot (with shoes on).

This sense of freedom continued in everything Jeep did. We were treated to some uninhibited singing during songs like ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ and ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, with random yelps, shouts and grunts added for effect. Not to mention snapping, clapping and hippie-era body movements during other songs. There were some Louis Armstrong impersonations, but it didn’t really work with Jeep’s voice. It seemed this guy really didn’t give a hoot about what people might have thought about his behaviour. Personally, I loved it.

  1. Follow the leader

The Jeep Jazz Trio have ideas and direction. You could feel the unity in the playing, which was tight even under sudden rhythmic, melodic or mood changes. Once, on ‘Girl from Ipanema’, the band unexpectedly went into double-time and left me almost choking on my drink. Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes jet-skiing! It took the arrangement to a whole new level.

The band had great chemistry and were perfectly in tune with one another. The bassist especially had his eyes glued on Jeep the whole time (I’m assuming it’s a professional relationship). No one overplayed or tried to outshine the others. It was great teamwork.

  1. Practise, practise, practise!

Chatting with them later, I found out that JJT usually perform on weekends at the limited number of venues in Penang. They meet together weekly to practise and discuss the audience’s responses after each gig. Then they work out how to improve and bang out further song arrangements. Performances are also recorded to get a better idea of what they sound like to the casual ear. It sounds like hard work.

It’s easy to imagine musicians with a high level of skill just hanging loose and waiting for the world to catch up. Obviously, this isn’t the case here. With less opportunities and resources than those in the Klang Valley, JJT appear to evangelise jazz with an unmatched fervour, actively teaching music and conducting workshops. Is our local jazz scene suffering from complacency and constipation?

I asked KL-born Jeep why he chooses to reside in Penang. He mentioned the slower pace of life, and the space to breathe and think about his music without traffic jams sapping up half his life. I wonder if we needed a dose of fresh air.

On this particular night, almost everyone stayed till the end. They cheered and clapped after each adventurous spree on the piano. Some mouthed along to the lyrics of songs. Others tapped their feet and nodded their heads, while birthday babies celebrated another year in the company of loved ones and good music. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves.

First Published: 24.03.2005 on Kakiseni