Jazzy take on favourites

PURNAMA, meaning full moon in Bahasa Malaysia, is filled with well-loved tunes of our country. This seventh physical album by jazz outfit WVC is one way composer, pianist and music director Tay Cher Siang feels Malaysian music will get a bigger voice.

The album offers traditional songs with jazzy, modern touches. You might know of a few. On Purnama’s lineup are the title track, Hitam Manis, Lenggang Mak Limah, Ibu, Main Shayar To sNahin, Putera Puteri, Jingli Nona, Tunggu Sekejap, Penang Samba, Hatiku Rindu, Joget Malaysia, and Song of Crossing at Dawn.

But choosing the songs for the album was a hard, if wonderful, task for the Melaka-born Tay. He got on it after working on a project in 2016, Seketika Sebelum Merdeka, with Eddin Khoo, known for his work in preserving the traditional Malay arts.

“He gave me a list of 50 songs (that guy knows his stuff) for me to pick from. I didn’t know much about the songs, thus I had to spend time going through each and every song, transcribing the songs, and trimming down the numbers, giving each selection a new voice, new approach.  That’s the hard part.

“Deciding which songs to be included in the album was relatively easy, because as a band, we played the tunes for a couple years on the road or during our club dates, so we knew the music quite well already,” says Tay, 43.

WVC’s lineup has changed since it started in the US, but it has had an impact on the music scene from staging innumerable concerts locally and abroad to winning awards like Boh Cameronian Arts accolades.

And music fans will recall the online 12-hour Malaysian Jazz Marathon, in November last year featuring 18 bands performing at the factory floor at Royal Selangor Pewter. The effort helped raised funds for the Malaysian Real Book Project, a compilation of Malaysian popular and folk songs under Tay’s watch.

For Purnama, Tay performs with fellow band members – bassist AJ PopShuvit and drummer Adriel Wong – and got onboard local musicians Yow Weng Wai (saxophone), Ng Chor Guan (theremin), Rizal Tony (on the guitar), and Tan Jie (shakuhachi). Singers on the album are Janet Lee, Jo, Izen Kong, Chong Keat Aun and Tan Chee Shen.

On if guests were hard to get for the album, Tay says: “I am glad they all said yes to my invitation. So I would say easy?”

Having a listen to Purnama’s promotional clips on wvcjazz.com/music,  I really liked Crossing at Dawn, and the superhit with Rishi Kapoor, Main Shayar to Nahin, which lyrics were penned by Anand Bakshi. Tay says these are his favorites too.

“I have a ‘palette’ of sound that I have collected throughout the years, some styles, or grooves, or particular sound or atmosphere that moved me, and I kept these ideas in my head, and when I try to arrange tunes, usually I think about the subject matter, maybe the lyrics, the story of the tunes. Then I try to find the suitable idea to match the songs from this tool box that I have kept.

“Sometimes I like to extend the story, for instance Hatiku Rindu, in the original, it was exuberant and accompanied by lushful strings, a very Egyptian pop kind of sound (think Umm Kulthum). I like the original no doubt, but I have to come up with some new ideas to make it WVC. So I took the liberty to paint the song in darker mood, something like Bjork or Portishead kind of colour, because missing and longing for someone can be scary as well (ever heard of those ghost stories where the soul of a longing person could travel hundred of miles at night to visit the person she is longing for…).

“Crossing at Dawn, is about the moment right before this person had to leave his home to come to Malaya to work so he could provide for his family back in China. But he wished that there was another hour for him to stay.

“The visual for me came from that Japanese woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which inspired the sound/direction that I took with that song.

“As for Main Shayar to Nahin, although not a Malaysian song, it is included because it speaks to us Malaysian from that era. The memories of time I spent with my great grandmother when I was very young, watching the early evening broadcast of many classic Bollywood movies.

“My great grandmother, who was in her 80s at that time, didn’t understand any other language other than her mother tongue, but enjoyed the Bollywood movies very much. She could tell who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. This seems to be a similar experience for many Malaysians, watching Bollywood movies in the sleepy early evenings.

“Check the translation of this song: I’m not a poet, until I met you girl, I’ve learned to write poetry. The direction I took with this song is this poetic/slow-cooking kind of mood as a piano trio; the kind of controlled mood that started with low fire, slowly building up to the climax, which I think exposed the inner turmoil of this poet.”

Band member AJ says Joget Malaysia is his favourite track on Purnama. “One of those ‘moments’ where we went, ‘yeah we’re WVC!'”

The hardest part of doing this album for drummer Adriel Wong is figuring out what to play on the drums. “Sometimes it comes magically, other times you think it would be nice but then it doesn’t sound the way you envisioned it, then you have to rethink again.”

Ah, but why still do albums, I ask Tay.

“I am stubborn, old fashioned, nostalgic.  At the same time, I staunchly believe in face to face interaction: Live concerts, face to face transactions, passing the album to the person who has enjoyed our music.

“The touch, the smell, the visuals, the writing, holding the album in hand; all these can’t be replaced and replicated by merely pressing a button on the phone screen. Also, this might not be scientific researched, but listening to music on streaming services like Spotify, the listeners usually don’t really know or don’t care what they are listening to. But holding a physical album in hand, the act of putting the CD into the player: that’s real interaction. Thus, I stick with physical album (albeit with free digital download!). “

## This article appeared in the New Straits Times

Filed under Arts
Subhadra Devan

A journalist who has been writing about culture, arts and heritage since the 1980s. She is herself gobsmacked to have started the Sunday arts pages for English newspapers in Malaysia, in the new millennium. The passion for these genres rages on.

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