What is jazz music? Ahh, if you could only hear the sounds in my head right now. “Improvised music with a lot of soul. Just play them blues, dude. Hey, that really swings! Play ‘out’ then come back right in…”

That wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people. So, I looked it up online, hoping to find the perfect explanation of jazz music. Wikipedia’s article was too technical and difficult to understand, even for a supposed jazz enthusiast like me. This is my simplification: jazz was basically popular dance music back in the 40s and 50s, and a highly technical music genre where everything is improvised. How good the improvisation is depends on how technical and musical each musician gets. It is very subjective, as everyone has their own influences and preferred musical tastes.

I did not realise I was indirectly exposed to jazz music in my youth; from cartoons like Tom & Jerry (plenty of Django Reinhardt-like guitar work there); Disney’s The Jungle Book (the swingy, jungle drums and intricate scat battles between King Louie and Baloo in Wanna Be Like You); and The Aristocats. In The Aristocats, during Everybody Wants To Be A Cat all the cats traded instrumental solos and they were cookin’ up some serious hot jazz in that scene, especially towards the end of the song where the upright piano kept crashing down each floor of the building.

Growing up, I was also exposed to a lot of lounge music and stuff that they were playing in the shopping malls (most of it was not my cup of tea). During my Technics electric organ days, I played a lot of score sheet music that was jazzy in nature. I had no internet at the time and it was difficult sourcing for good jazz cassette tapes in my hometown, Kota Kinabalu, so I only had my imagination and the instructions of music books to help me fathom what “jazz” was all about.

My favorite jazz tune to play on the organ was Killer Joe and boy, was I totally blown away and enlightened when I heard the original version at my college’s library. The music library was my favorite place due to my insatiable hunger for jazz, but as the years went by, I somehow got more involved in the pop rock scene and eventually, my Bill Evans books and Jamey Aebersold CDs were gathering dust at the back of my closet. But not for too long, thank God.

Moon Bar's house band for the night, with David Gomez on piano, Jordan Rivers on guitars, Jonathan Jacobs on drums and Anthony Muthurajah on bass.

Moon Bar’s house band for the night, with David Gomez on piano, Jordan Rivers on guitars, Jonathan Jacobs on drums and Anthony Muthurajah on bass.

Moon Bar Jam

The year 2013 was a turning point in my life as I rekindled my long lost passion for jazz. I made drastic decisions : I stopped playing Top 40s nightly, I started sourcing for jazz tutorials online, attempted jazz standards during gigs, watched jazz cats perform in local clubs and mustered much courage to check out jazz jams sessions where I could observe, learn and enjoy jazz music.

Lo and behold, the Moon Bar Sunday Jazz Jam Sessions. Every Sunday. From 5-8pm.

I went to Moon Bar two weeks in a row. My first visit on the 4th of August was hosted by saxophonist Julian Chan, and the second week by singer Junji Delfino. Both Julian and Junji are no strangers to the KL jazz scene and they made me feel at home, even asking me to sit in for a couple of tunes. My response was a big fat NO as I was adamant on being a spectator. To my pleasant surprise, there were many music students and seasoned musos in the crowd, all waiting for their turn to play with their instruments ready in hand. It felt like school all over again, and I quickly found myself a seat in the extremely chilly bar that serves cheap beer (RM9 per pint of Tiger Beer) and could do with better sound system.

Everyone patiently waiting for their turns to jam

Everyone patiently waiting for their turn to jam

Jazz Jam Guides

Alrighty then. How does a jazz jam work? What do you exactly in a jazz jam? Do you sign up? Do you bring your own instruments? Do you bring score sheets or memorise 600 tunes? Do you dress up for the occasion? How now brown cow?

Well, it’s basically all of the above. Most jazz jams held at venues such as Alexis, and No Black Tie practise a pretty similar routine: you sign up, and unless you are a pianist or a drummer, you are required to bring your own horn or string instrument. For vocalists, it is advisable to perform something that you already know and hopefully, everyone in the band knows too. If all else fails, learn the usual jazz standards like Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E. or Gershwin’s Summertime (it’s like how most pub musicians must know how to play Mustang Sally.) Local jazzy standards include P Ramlee’s Getaran Jiwa or Sheila Majid’s Jelingan Manja.  Make sure you let the musos know your keys so that they can play it right. Score sheets are an option; prepare several copies for everyone in the band to play, and brace yourself for the fact that not everyone is a reader. You don’t want to make people feel like they are sitting for a sight-reading exam when everyone is there to share and contribute to the music, and more importantly, have loads of fun making music with each other. It also helps if the vocalist could lead the band too.

There are occasions on jam night where musos would just jump right in with their instruments when the band is already playing. I remember watching Junji ‘kill’ on Days Of Wine and Roses with her amazing scatting vocabulary. I heard hints of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and Junji’s rich vocal texture with that slight raspy, huskiness that I am totally biased towards made me sit up in my chair with super concentration. I have no idea what modes or scales she was using at that time because I just don’t analyse music that way, but I was trying to remember her melodic choices. I repeated every note she used and I definitely looked like a foolish person doing so in a loud jazz club.

I really liked when Junji joined Janet Lee on Bye Bye Blackbird on the second verse and they kind of held hands and smiled at each other, and took turns to improvise. My highlight of the night was when the pianist for the night’s house band, Wei Li, jumped in with his violin and improvised, and sat in for a few more songs that night with his violin. Michael Veerapen played his melodica effortlessly with loads of interesting and tasteful note choices. I loved how drummer Jonathan Jackson gave bebop a fresh new twist with his funky, neo soul drum chops. Multi instrumentalists like David Ling (clarinet) and Marques Young (trombone) took turns to tinker the ivory keys at the jam, which makes it really fun to watch. And if you are like me, you will be overwhelmed with amazement, envy and a slight feeling of defeat because they sounded equally good on both instruments. These cats have been around and I salute them for making such an effort to create an awareness for jazz music and making it possible for everyone to experience playing and creating magic with each other during these jam sessions.

I was super thrilled when I could still name every tune that they played: Lullaby of Birdland, Days of Wine and Roses, Autumn Leaves, Bye Bye Blackbird, Night and Day, All The Things You Are, This Masquerade, Straight No Chaser, Billie’s Bounce, Scrapple From The Apple, No More Blues and my favorite, You Don’t Know What Love Is…and I applaud the brave mother-and-daughter duo that attempted L.O.V.E and Sway during my first night at the Moon Bar.

David Gomes, Junji and Jordan Rivers truly shone that night with their melodic and fluid jazz scats and I left the bar feeling mighty inspired. I think it may have just created a mini music geek in me.

Junji Delfino, the host for the night

Junji Delfino, the host for the night

Not the Final Bar

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

Two days after the second Sunday night, I learnt Moon Bar’s Sunday jazz jam sessions were discontinued due to poor response and weak bar sales. What a shame! I wanted to participate in the following week’s jazz jam with Nat King Cole’s Nature’s Boy, which I was planning to perform on my Hohner melodeon.

But all is not lost. I have Moon Bar to thank for reigniting my inner jazz cat. I think I feel a little braver now to attend the other jazz jam sessions in town. There’s always that first Monday of the month jazz jam night at Alexis Bangsar (dress code applies) and every Sunday at Waikiki Bar PJ. Although Waikiki Bar’s Sunday jams are more inclined towards pop-ish pub numbers, I remember a lot of jazz cats like John Thomas (household name monster drummer) and Thomas Theseira (he plays some mean sax and flute) who have showcased their killer jazz chops there. They totally brought the house down and what was most delightful to see was how receptive the whole Waikiki crowd was towards jazz music. No Black Tie also hosts random jazz jam nights so it would be a great idea to subscribe to their e-newsletter and Facebook for updates, or you could just take a copy of their in-house program flyers when you are there the next time.

I know that this is not the end. Till the next time, I shall see you cats soon at the next jazz jam sesh.

Deciding on what tune to play next

Deciding on what tune to play next