I don’t even like jazz, as a genre, but jazz virtuosos do generate a peculiar fascination. You have to be so goddam good to pass muster as a “jazz great’ the accomplishment in itself is worth applauding and recording.
As jazz pianists go, few get any better than Singapore’s mythical Monteiro (Jeremy) and Malaysia’s venerable Veerapen (Michael). No doubt, the price of admission would be noticeably higher on a double bill of, say, Corea (Chick) and Jarrett (Keith) – but that may be largely due to the fact that they’re jazz piano icons from America (the land of hyperbole and hype}, each with a distinctive musical signature and a pervasive influence within the domain of progressive jazz.
In any event it was a rare treat to catch Jeremy Monteiro and Michael Veerapen on the same stage, facing off behind a pair of perfectly tuned Steinways. I’m not sure the Phil (Dewan Filharmonik Petronas) was the ideal venue for such a performance – but as a symbol of ultimate recognition, playing at the nation’s swankiest concert hall was a dream come true, at least for Michael Veerapen. Indeed, one could almost sense the pleasure and pride emanating from a large section of the supportive audience, family members and friends who had come to cheer as Messrs Monteiro and Veerapen jazzed up the Phil.
It was apparent from the outset that each respected the other’s reputation and pianistic skill. Monteiro was flamboyant and fluid, with an extrovert feel; while Veerapen came across as more cerebral, introverted and restrained. This dynamic between tension and relaxation kept the performance vibrant and stimulating, even on well-worn mainstream numbers like Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”.
Veerapen’s composition, “Consequence”, like most of his pianistic oeuvre, was a brilliantly architectural piece, held together by pure musical logic and stirring in its confident, mature lyricism. The duo closed the first set with Monteiro’s “Soliloquy” – an eloquent, soulful exploration of the bluesy whimsicality that makes jazz, jazz. His million-dollar fingers flamencoed and flew over the ivories, making him an absolute master of the arpeggio, hands down.
They performed cover versions of classic numbers by Egberto Gismonti, Chick Corea, Bob Mintzer, and Thelonius Monk, but it would be inaccurate to call them “covers” – rather, they were intimate interpretations, clever and quirky, and strongly flavoured by each pianist’s personality. It was marvellous to watch the two virtuosos take turns soloing on their grand pianos, with hardly a trace of ego competitiveness. On “Caravan” by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol, they pushed interpretation to the max, spicing their arrangement with generous dollops of pure improvisation, blithely venturing into Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra territory. For me this was definitely the high point of the entire concert, as my own taste in jazz leans towards the avant-garde.
Monteiro sang on “You’ll Never Know” (Henry Warren/Mack Gordon) and it was really a passable performance, though one could tell from Veerapen’s sardonic undertone when introducing the number that the specialist in him didn’t totally approve of the experiment. At one point, Monteiro remarked that this joint concert was a good example of all the wonderful things that can happen if only Malaysia and Singapore would collaborate on more fronts. Which prompted Veerapen to quip, holding up a bottle of mineral water: “Friendship aside, we were fighting for water backstage!”
Sharing the bill with Monteiro and Veerapen was Singaporean jazz vocalist Rani Singam who quickly charmed the house with her friendly, chatty stage persona. Although her voice is beautifully pitched and clear, and her expression finely crafted, the miking failed to bring out the best timbre from it, accentuating the high range instead – so that it sometimes became too penetrating. True, Rani Singam has captured the Billie Holliday feel, but her voice lacked the sultry earthiness of the legendary black mamas who inspired and influenced her. According to the programme notes, Singam has only been on the Singapore jazz scene for five years, so it’s a good bet her voice will just keep maturing like a fine wine.
I just hope somebody had the horse sense to record Monteiro and Veerapen’s historic performance at the Phil on both nights, so we’ll get to relive those scintillating moments on CD.
Antares is a musician, writer, actor, activist, and filmmaker.
First Published: 15.12.2005 on Kakiseni