5 things you don’t know about… jazz piano in Malaysia
And who better to tell us than veteran jazz pianist Tay Cher Siang of the WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble.
1. Piano is how most Malaysian jazz musicians got started
“In the Malaysian jazz scene, there are perhaps more jazz pianists than players of any other instrument,” say Cher Siang. “Heck! Even our jazz pioneers like Alfonso Soliano and Jimmy Boyle were pianists.”
This stands to reason; it’s only been in the past couple of decades that Malaysia has has seen an increase in horn, woodwind, string and percussion teachers. Before that, learning music meant taking piano lessons.
“They pursue soulful sounds”
Everyone took piano, and from this pool of young musicians, some discovered that wonderful music we call jazz. “They pursued the soulful sounds, often outside the country, where they attended courses, lessons, music colleges and universities. The important thing is that many came back, enriching Malaysia’s music scene. They came back and enrich the music scene here in Malaysia.”
2. Jazz piano has it’s very own festival, right here
It’s been going on for three years, spearheaded by living jazz legend, Michael Veerapan. In fact all top jazz pianists get involved: David Gomes, Toro Cheng Pin Xuan, Weili Cheah, Justin Lim, Wee Lern Ch’ng, Ee Jeng Hiin, John Dip Silas and, naturally, Tay Cher Siang himself. “That’s nine of the finest jazz pianists in the country organizing to celebrate, to cultivate and to exchange ideas, in this three-day festival,” says Cher Siang.
Top pianists get involved in the annual Malaysian Jazz Piano Festival
The Malaysian Jazz Piano Festival runs several theme-based workshops related to jazz piano: theory, history, aesthetics, etc. There is also hands-on instruction and the highlight; a jazz piano competition that invites young practitioners to play on “a professional stage”.
3. Jazz pianists are natural leaders
“Pianists, especially in the Malaysian jazz scene, are usually bandleader of their own band. Why? Because according to jazz folklore, pianists usually are the brainiest and most organized instrumentalists.” A burst of laughter indicates that Cher Siang may not fully subscribe to this idea.
“[P]ianists are the ones writing original tunes”
Then, as he considers the source of the popular assumption: “I suppose that from a musical standpoint, it’s kinda true. Pianists are usually trained classically which gives them a strong music theory background and a greater repertoire. The discipline also equips them with analytic skills and organizational skills.”
In fact, he adds: “Usually pianists are the ones writing original tunes and preparing music for their bands to play. So, that makes the pianists the natural bandleader after all.”
4. It’s tougher to tour
Think about it. Other musicians can be particular about their instruments and carry their own to perform. “Saxophonists have their own precious saxophones with the right mouthpiece configurations, the correct reed, etc, while bassists customized their bass to their liking.”
The idea of carrying your piano to a gig is, well, ridiculous. If pianists have to bring their own gear, it’s nearly always a keyboard which still “is dreadful, because a good keyboard is bulky and weighs a ton!” Venues sometimes provide a piano or keyboard for the kind of performance Cher Siang calls “a one night stand.”
“You never know what kind of instrument you will end up playing, especially on tour. Most venue owners wouldn’t know a piano from a harpsichord, thus I have played some horrendous instruments in and outside the country.
“You never know what kind of instrument you’ll end up playing”
“One particular instrument was so bad that, the manufacturer wouldn’t even put a name on their product. I have played a keyboard in Guangzhou that would modulate mid song, which made the bassist’s and saxophonist’s job so much tougher. In Nanjing, I played a piano (more like honky tonk) that, I saw it tuned in the afternoon and got out of tune in the middle of first tune. I destroyed five keys on an old keyboard in Brunei (or rather the keys were too fragile to begin with), and I have played a piano that made my fingers bleed, because of sharp edges on the keys.”
Sometimes he is pleasantly surprised. “Once in a while, I get to play a great instrument.” However, this is a rarity and “as a pianist, I am eternally grateful when I come across a beautiful instrument.”
5. There’s no excuse to miss it
Kuala Lumpur and Penang have “an especially active jazz scene”
Especially if you live in Kuala Lumpur or Penang, two cities that have an especially active jazz scene, with more than a handful of jazz clubs and venues. These are frequents stages for jazz pianists so check them out. How? “Google ‘KL jazz’ or ‘Penang jazz’,” says Cher Siang. “Or look at listings on ARTERI” – giving us an unpaid plug – or Time Out KL.” A lot of clubs nowadays have Facebook pages and mailing lists, so be sure to get on those as well.
About Tay Cher Siang
Cher Siang is not only a well-known jazz pianist but a passionate jazz educator interested in grooming the next generation of performers.