The Jazz.com Blog
March 17, 2008 · 5 comments
It’s hard to make great jazz even under the most favorable circumstances. But what do you do if you're a singer who has taken a overseas gig with a hotel lounge band in Malaysia, accepting that your mission in life is now to make this un-cool ensemble into something happenin’?
That’s the challenge Andrea Mann faces every evening as she steps on stage, and she recounts her triumphs and foibles in one of the best blogs on the web, the ever fascinating Lost In Transposition. Mann has now agreed to share her first person story with jazz.com. Read on! T.G.
Can a British jazz vocalist turn a Malaysian hotel lounge act into a credible jazz trio in two months? Clue: probably not. Read on…
“Ledeezengennelmen, plizwelcome… mizandramaaaaan!”
Cue faint ripple of applause.
And so I walk on stage for another performance at the G Spot (yes, that’s its real name) – the jazz club in Penang, Malaysia where I’ve been booked to sing six nights a week, for two months. Like some sort of Celine Dion-esque Vegas residency, only without the dancers. Or the hydraulic platforms. Or the hydraulic dancers on platforms.
It wasn’t until after I arrived at the end of January, and had my first rehearsal with the band – three local, 50-something Muslim men – that I realised quite what my assignment was out here.
I wasn’t brought out here just to sing. Oh, no. It appears that I was also brought out here to bring jazz to The Malaysian Masses – or at least, the ones living in Penang – and that includes its musicians.
I’m coming to the final two weeks of my residency now, and along the way there have been tears, inner tantrums (not outer ones – I’m British, remember) and many, many duff notes. There have also been accolades, delightful moments, and the successful climbing of a steep learning curve. By both me, and three 50-something Muslim men.
You can follow my journey here – but to save you the trouble of working through the daily posts categorised The Actual Music Stuff, I’ll list the top five the lessons I’ve learned:
1. Michael Bublé is very, very popular in Malaysia
This may seem a relatively unimportant lesson to be number one, but in fact, not a day has gone past that I haven’t heard this young man’s name mentioned and/or had one of his songs requested of me and/or heard him singing over the speakers of a department store. People here know ‘Sway’ as ‘a Michael Bublé song’ (not even ‘a Dean Martin song’ or heaven forbid ‘a Ruiz/Gimbel song’). He may be a lovely fella, but through no fault of his own – well, except perhaps his records - Mr. Bublé has become my jazz nemesis.
2. Malaysians don’t really ‘get jazz’
A phrase which has been said to me a number of times. Jazz in Malaysia – like many places in the West, in fact – is loved by a passionate, underground few. Or to put it another way: Malaysians like their pop. There’s live music a-plenty on the small island of Penang – but it takes the form of a pop covers band playing in a bar, or a cocktail pianist playing Every Song Known To Man in a hotel lobby. By going on stage every night and performing
3. Malaysians have a tradition of making song requests
…and of having them fulfilled, as per the recording they know. Over the course of each night, I’ve been handed between one and twenty song request cards by the waiters in the bar, passing them on to me from members of the audience. This has a) helped me to quickly learn which standards are well-known and loved over here; and b) helped me to quickly educate the audience about what jazz is/isn’t. Mainly by saying over the microphone: “I’m very sorry, but I can’t do ‘Memory’/’My Heart Will Go On/Vincent’, because I’m not a pop singer”. My favourite song request so far has been “Diana Ross”. Just that: “Diana Ross”. I said: “Erm… could you be more specific? Or do you just want a giant Diana Ross medley?” (And then sang ‘Killing Me Softly’ with an invisible gun to my head.)
4. They think that ‘sitting in’ is ‘karaoke’
The bar manager took me to one side on one of my first nights, after I’d allowed a local, elderly jazz singer to do one number, and a local tenor sax player to join us for the final set. It turns out that in Malaysia there isn’t really the concept of ‘sitting in’ (probably because there isn’t really the concept of ‘jazz’). What there is, however, is the concept of karaoke – which is hugely popular over here and almost as popular as Michael Bublé, in fact. So the manager had confused what I’d done with allowing any old hotel guest to take to the stage. Apparently it’s very hard to wrestle the microphone away from a Malaysian once they’ve got it, and some clubs even have a ‘No Guest Singers’ sign next to the bandstand to prevent such an event from occurring.
5. It’s quite difficult to turn a piano player into a jazz piano player when he’s never heard of Sarah Vaughan
Quickly, at least. All of the above points about Malaysian music tastes and knowledge go for the trio I’m working with, too. They know ‘Sway’ as ‘a Michael Bublé song’, and ‘Route 66’ as ‘a Nat King Cole song’, and have learned their arrangements accordingly. It goes without saying that the bassist plays the electric, rather than double, bass; and that the pianist is heavily influenced by those two greats: Richard Clayderman, and the Mantovani Strings.
And yet, and yet… Yet despite all of the above, through blood, sweat and rehearsals, I have created something resembling a jazz quartet - and my three musicians have been surprisingly gracious in accepting the directions of someone who’s a) foreign, b) female and c) younger than them. And d) slightly bossy (I’m British, remember).
They may play pop songs and use all manner of naff keyboard sounds during their instrumental set. But as soon as I’m up there on stage with them, they now take solos (gasp!), trade fours (double gasp!), do slightly more interesting arrangements (voice and bass start, anyone?), play and improvise on jazz standards and songs which two months ago they’d never heard of. And what’s more, they now know who wrote these tunes –not just who recorded them in the past five years.
And all of the above may be very beginner-like. But beginners’ jazz is better than no jazz; and as long I’ve helped to bring this music – and this approach to performing it - to a new audience of both musicians and non-musicians, then, well, I guess I’ve achieved something.
Even without the Footloose moves.
This blog entry contributed by Andrea Mann. To follow Andrea’s day-to-day experiences as a jazz singer in Malaysia, visit her blog Lost In Transposition.