Good news for lacklustre jazz scene

Musician-composer Susan Harmer performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine (above), who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: DJU-LIAN CHNG (PRIMARY STUDIO)
Musician-composer Susan Harmer performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine (above), who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: DJU-LIAN CHNG (PRIMARY STUDIO)
Musician-composer Susan Harmer performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro (above) and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine, who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: VARIAN MONTEIRO
Musician-composer Susan Harmer performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro (above) and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine, who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: VARIAN MONTEIRO
Musician-composer Susan Harmer (above, far left) performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine, who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: LEE HONG RUI
Musician-composer Susan Harmer (above, far left) performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe last year, Jeremy Monteiro and Japanese pianist Aya Sekine, who is based in Singapore. -- PHOTO: LEE HONG RUI

Jazz musicians are hopeful the opening of SingJazz will revive jazz standards in Singapore

In a jazz scene that has become dreary of late, a piece of good news has perked some aficionados up: Barely a month after jazz venue Sultan Jazz Club closed down, another jazz club has taken over its premises within The Sultan Hotel in Jalan Sultan (see story below for more on the club).

SingJazz Club promises to be a listening room for serious jazz lovers, just like the now-defunct Sultan Jazz Club.

When the new club opens next Thursday, insiders say it will become the only proper jazz club catering to an estimated 50 professional and 300 semi-professional jazz musicians in Singapore.

The only other places to play at are bars and hotel lounges, multi-genre clubs such as BluJaz in Bali Lane, and private and corporate shows.

Singapore's most recognized jazz man, Jeremy Monteiro, says the prospects here right now for jazz musicians are "bleak".

There are fewer live venues to play at and even fewer corporate shows, even as the number of jazz musicians are growing, says the musician and composer, who is a Cultural Medallion recipient.

"While it used to be standard to have a live band in a four- or five-star hotel in Singapore, that doesn't happen any- more," says Monteiro.

The 53-year-old musician laments too about how, in the last five years, more jazz gigs have gone to less-than-stellar talents.

He says: "The trouble now in Singapore is that there are too many mediocre players and many of them price themselves cheaper. They know how to market themselves, they dress well, they have good stage presence and are excellent at self-promotion. But some of them can't string three notes in tune in a bar."

Monteiro himself does three nights a week at Bob's Bar at the luxury Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa. One of the scene's most seasoned players, he also does regular gigs overseas, including Britain, France and China, as well as private or corporate gigs.

The latter is where the real money is for jazz musicians here, he adds. According to him, he can earn as much as 10 times more for a private or corporate gig than for a club show in a place such as Sultan Jazz Club.

Still, a place such as the former Sultan Jazz Club, where a musician can play more "serious" types of jazz to a discerning audience, is important.

"The amount of attention and appreciation you get is directly related to the amount of money you earn," he adds. "The more money you earn, the less attention you will get for your playing. And that's the reality."

Susan Harmer, a musician and composer who plays in several local jazz outfits including Tropic Green, Thomson Big Band, Susan Harmer's LittleBigBand and Susan Harmer's SmallBand, says that her bands, which play less popular forms of jazz, instrumentals and original tunes, "find it hard to get hired".

"Recently, I received a letter from a club which used to hire Tropic Green, saying it will now hire only bands that play 'customer pleasing' tunes," says Harmer, 59, who is Singaporean. "So bands that play original material are out."

Tropic Green, an eight-piece band, plays her compositions and have released an EP, Jazz From The Tropics, late last year.

Formed in 2010, a lot of their gigs are at music festivals abroad, such as the Samui International Jazz Festival in 2011 and 2012, and the Borneo International Jazz Festival in 2012.

They will play at the Kathmandu Jazz festival, Jazzmandu, in October. Locally, they have played at the Singapore International Jazz Festival in March and the Esplanade's Mosaic Music Festival in 2012 and last year.

Harmer says: "Unlike clubs, festivals actually seek out bands which are original and different as they have a different target audience. So festivals help to keep jazz and other genres alive."

She says that because she does not get a lot of gigs, she supplements her income by teaching and working on music.

She adds: "My gigs are, on average, once a month, which is not a lot. If I were to go out and get a regular gig, it would be different. But I choose not to get a regular gig because I spend a lot of time writing and arranging. I also teach, which I need to do to pay the bills. It pays much better than a regular gig."

Despite the lack of venues or a proper jazz circuit in Singapore to hone their skills, young jazz hopefuls are coming out of music college, perhaps dreaming of making it big.

Lasalle College of the Arts has been offering jazz programmes in the last decade and it has seen an increase in its intake in the last two years.

It now has, on average, five graduates in its BA (Honours) Music (Jazz Performance) programme a year.

Japanese pianist Aya Sekine, 42, a familiar name in the local jazz scene, was among the most recent cohort and graduated with a degree last month.

Sekine, who grew up in Singapore and is a permanent resident here, was educated at Boston's famed Berklee College Of Music. She has been performing regularly here since 2002, before becoming an adjunct professor at Lasalle's music school in 2009.

Last year, she enrolled in the college's degree programme.

"I felt like I was burning out," she says of her decision to become a student again. "I felt like I was performing but I was not fulfilling my passion. So I needed to rejuvenate my passion and artistry, and go back to the basics. I did all that during my year as a student."

Sekine plans to return to teaching at Lasalle again. She now plays gigs with jazz/soul/experimental outfit L.A.B, which will be performing at Artistry this Saturday.

Because of her style of music, which leans towards swing and bebop, Sekine says she does not land many jobs at corporate shows.

"Some of the clients, whoever is giving you the opportunity to perform, the jazz that they talk about and the jazz that I talk about may not be necessarily the same thing," she says.

"It's not bad, it's just reality. My style of jazz is sometimes not considered accessible."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg