By Zalina Lee
Theatre diva and award-winning set designer Edwin Sumun is the interior decorator for the recently opened Top Room along Jalan Kia Peng. Edwin’s magic touch had transformed what was the upper floor of a restaurant into a jazz bar. The night we were there, he was also the MC, a stand-in manager and a general-fount-of-knowledge. For instance, he informed us that the reason the Top Room took a while to be realised was because the co-owners, the Dankers, and local jazz legends David Gomes and Junji Delfino, wanted to go through the proper channels: licenses for drinks, entertainment, what-have-you.
So, if you like to sit down to a tipple and good live jazz music without worrying that you’ll be busted for drinking on a Friday night, the Top Room’s the place for you.
I had dragged along the hubby and Juliet (yes, our Events Editor!) and we easily found the place, no trouble. The restaurant itself occupies the lower level of the colonial two-storey bungalow, the ground level of which is the restaurant Top Hat. It is very impressive at night, and looked like a place with a dress code. Damn.
Parking wasn’t a problem, and so we walked out the sandy parking lot, self-consciously wondering if our denims were too informal. The entryway itself is not a grand affair. A businesslike door directly faces the dessert refrigerator.
The entry fee for a three-set show is RM50++ (we didn’t have to pay). Admittedly, this seems a bit steep, but as Edwin pointed out to us, this is a two-drink charge. Most nightspots charge between RM25-RM40 for a one-drink entry. I found that logic inherently reasonable.
I will say now, the drinks menu is a little limited. You have shots, house-pouring whites and reds, fruit juices and soft drinks. No cocktails, although Edwin welcomed us (a little huffily) to mix ourselves a drink with whatever was available. I ended up with a lonely JAWl-friendly Sprite.
The Top Hat is very… orange. But the stage is the main focal point of the Top Room. A honey of a grand piano takes up a third of the stage, with a major part of what’s left occupied by the drums. The bassist, singer and whoever else is performing at the time gets what’s left of the space. Which brings us to…
John Thomas and Friends: Full throttle
Fri 19 – Sat 20 May 2006
John Thomas was a cutie when I first saw him (albeit from a distance) at the Sunrise Jazz festival all those years ago. His technical ability amazed me back then, and it didn’t fail to amaze me that Saturday night. And hooooo, boy! He’s a cuter cutie than he was back then!
The “and Friends” portion of the evening comprised of a bassist, a pianoman and “diminutive” (it says so in the flyer) vocalist Maria Angela. They were jazzing it up for all it was worth on that tiny stage. I’m not into the kind of jazz where your instrumentalists are on the same plane of existence physically, but in astral fact are probably about a few dimensions away.
That being said, John Thomas’ driving drum beats had me bobbing my head and tapping my feet, almost totally against my own will. His drumming is like an F1 Racer at full throttle. John Thomas fans out there will agree, this dude’s at Mach 3, and he doesn’t trip.
The first few opening numbers overall, though, were a little fumbly. The bassist looked like he needed to keep up, whereas the pianist was so laid back he was like “I’m an old pro, I’m just here to keep an eye on the young ‘uns.”
When singer Maria joined in, the mike seemed a little soft for her. She’s tiny, but she definitely packed a wallop. Now it’s hard to sing when it’s too loud to think, and with a driving drum beat knocking you sideways, it’s also hard to remember what key you were last in. She managed very admirably to stay on track despite the adversity.
Nevertheless, hubby loved the driving beat and he too couldn’t stop bobbing his head and tapping his feet. A lady at the table next to us was very vocal in her approval of John Thomas’s performance. Juliet was like, stoned. Not literally, but shah… you can tell this one’s been working too hard.
I’m going to assume nerves and a sparse crowd made it hard for the performers to loosen up, but by the second set, we were treated to a really smooth and relaxed performance. The walls between dimensions had obviously been thinned, and all was well on the astral plane.
The KL Hardbop Band: Jazz was a dirty word
Fri 26 – Sat 27 May 2006
The following weekend. Best friend Min got in from Oz that very evening, and I think she was just itching to get out of the house and into anyplace serving alcoholic beverages. So, we swung by her place to pick her up for an evening of jazz and booze. Sitting in the back, my hubby and Min began needling each other, which made me wanna smack their heads together. Thank goodness for ex-colleague (and fellow Cammie Bouncer) Juliana, whom I managed to lure into catching that weekend’s offering by waving the vague promise of a Junji Delfino appearance.
My irritation melted away the minute the music started, though. And from my vantage point at the other end of the small room — I was sitting with Juliana — I noticed that hubby and Min had stopped needling each other and were paying attention to the smooth sounds from on-stage.
Tonight, pianist David Gomes and sax man Julian Chan attempted to take us back to the days of hardbop — days when jazz was a dirty word and all the cooler for it. Sax man Julian had that aloof remoteness you see in a lot of sax men. They’re masculine, they’re mysterious, they wail out the blues, they ripple up and down the modes and scales, and they’ve got the sexiest instrument around. Julian Chan is a true sax man.
I’m particularly sorry I didn’t get a chance to get everyone’s names, but I was very very delighted with the fact that this combo also came with a double bass (as opposed to an electric one) and a trumpet. There were some classic smooth jazz sounds with some really interesting improvs come solo time. Though that jazz format of starting together, then followed by everybody’s solo, and then coming back together, can become a little samey.
However, I guess with this particular combo, what let me down a little was some of the orchestrated parts. It made for a highly polished performance. The trumpet and sax harmonised at the same points, everything was cued perfectly. But you see, I felt it was too perfect sometimes — there were moments when I thought it lacked the spontaneity and frenetic energy that I really like about live jazz performances. Otherwise, the tight orchestration did impress me no end.
Junji Delfino, lads and ladies, is a powerhouse. She scats, she jumps into the music and is herself a pure vocal instrument. She’s not just a soloist, but an equal member of a jazz combo. She vindicated Juliana’s Saturday night out and continued to silence my hubby and Min.
Junji corrected a particularly serious error in a leading daily that suggested that Top Hat was closing. The article claimed that the KL Hardbop Band will be the last act of Top Room, and Junji assured us that the band was merely the last act of the month of May. Lots of other acts have been lined up as you can see from Kakiseni’s listings.
I had been treated to two very different styles of jazz at the Top Room, and while I have my personal views, I can honestly say this: You’ll be paying to watch some really solid acts. There is no fluffy waffle on that stage. You’ll get your three-set fill of professionals playing jazz as it should be, in all its forms. The ventilation is great so you won’t choke on the smoke from the chain-smoker dying next to you. And the parking is ample ensuring you don’t have to walk three blocks in your high heels.
At the moment though, Top Room, like the Hardbop Band, is clean to the point of being almost too pristine. The lights reminded me of those old-fashioned paraffin lamps we used back in the kampung before Tenaga Nasional reached the interior — they are charming and intimate. But as a result, the brightest source of light comes from outside. My attention was constantly being grabbed by the neon-bright coconut palm outside the window. So I say the windowpanes can certainly afford to be murkier. Top Room has great potential to be a seriously cosy jazz bar. For now, it needs all the patrons, grubby hands and dirty music it can get. So what are all you dirty jazz lovers waiting for?
Upcoming events at Top Room: Jazz & Blues with Allan Perera & Friends. Fri 23 – Sat 24 Jun 2006 (10pm) and Eye 2 Eye Jazz Mix. Fri 30 Jun – Sat 1 Jul 2006.
Zalina Lee is the former office manager at Kakiseni; she couldn’t stand Pang’s singing.
First Published: 21.06.2006 on Kakiseni