A most pleasant surprise discovery

It’s no secret that I hate travelling, and that while on the road I deal with missing my wife so badly by spending practically every waking moment working. (Except when, you know, hanging out in Chinatown whorehouses.) The past two weeks in Singapore were no exception, but I had an unexpected piece of luck this time: Joshua Wan, Melissa Tham (pronounced “Tam”), and whoever their string bassist du jour happened to be on any given day.

I arrived on a Tuesday, and that evening when looking for the hotel restaurant I noticed that (a) the hotel had a nice bar/lounge area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across Marina Bay to the CBD skyline, and (b) they were going to have live jazz in the evenings all weekend long starting on Thursday. The poster displayed prominently in the lobby promised “jazz evenings with Melissa Tham,” of whom I had never heard but who, given the fact that the emphatically five-star Mandarin Oriental was letting her on their premises, I presumed was at least competent. Furthermore the publicity shot they were using for the poster was clearly meant to project an atmosphere of elegance, meaning we were most likely talking soft romantic jazz rather than hard-edged noisy stuff or polyrhythmic experimentation…so, you know, good stuff to listen to while sitting and working on one’s laptop. I made a mental note to head down there that Thursday rather than working in my hotel room, and in due course found myself sitting in the Axis Lounge as a standard jazz trio of pianist, string bassist and songstress took their places.

And within the first few bars I knew I had stumbled across something special. But what I didn’t realize at first was that I hadn’t just discovered a jazz trio of the highest quality musically – I was in for even more of a treat. Because these guys, and most especially the pianist, Joshua Wan, turned out to have keen senses of humor to go with serious musical chops.

I don’t mean to imply that Ms. Tham did the Sammy Geezinslaw shtick of doing stand-up comedy between numbers, or that they were some sort of jazz version of Weird Al. The Axis Lounge is definitely going for a particular atmosphere the keynotes of which are “elegance and sophistication,” and they were careful to stay within the professional parameters thereof. But any musical performer who has ever taken gigs in a restaurant or a lounge or a wedding is used to being treated as background music by patrons who didn’t come there specifically to hear them, and each such musician has his own way of coping with the implied disrespect. These guys? They did it with the musical equivalent of inside jokes.

Now, I am not going to do a serious review of their music in this post, though they certainly deserve one; if I have time I will separately post a low-budget review of their CD’s (which I brought back with me) in which I’ll talk about exactly why I think these guys are absolutely A-level. [UPDATE: Done.] Here I’ll be content merely to say that they obviously have put in their 10,000 hours of practice and have reached the “virtuoso” stage of technical proficiency. Now, Ms. Tham was somewhat constrained by the fact that the casual patron would only really be paying attention to her, since (a) she had the microphone and (b) she was the one in the fancy poster out in the lobby. So she had to behave herself. But Mr. Wan was “just” the pianist sitting in the corner, and playing jazz gave him license to improvise.

The result is that I now know that it is possible to play piano with one’s tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek. (If, that is, you are spectacularly skilled.)

There were nights when the couches and tables surrounding the piano were filled with people who were genuinely locked in on the music, and to those audiences, Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham repaid respect for respect. At other times, however, I would be the only person sitting near the musicians, while the rest of the bar was filled with noisy conversation; and then Mr. Wan would start cutting up.

When he’s being serious, his musical taste is impeccable, and while he might happen to play a riff that would make other pianists say, “Whoa, that was way harder than he just made it sound,” the technique is always in the service of the music. But when he’s feeling impish, he’ll occasionally throw in some over-the-top, Liberace-esque bit of fireworks, with the evident hope (occasionally realized) of making Ms. Tham start laughing rather than singing. So let’s say there’s a point in some particular song that calls for him to provide some light counterpoint to a sustained note sung by Ms. Tham – maybe the opening phrase of “You Go To My Head,” for example. If it’s 8:30, or if people are actually listening, Mr. Wan might do a quick, light right-hand run up the keyboard while Ms. Tham is holding her note on “head…..,” providing a bit of motion underneath her note but not distracting from what she is doing vocally to enrich the note. But if it’s 11:30 and the only people left in the joint are swapping jokes in loud voices, Mr. Wan is liable to do that run up the keyboard, all right…but then instantly to reverse the run back down, and then run it back up, and then finish off with an outrageous fortissimo trill at the top. Or he’ll start playing a bass line that fits the chord progression perfectly but is actually the melody of a completely different song. Or he might take advantage of the fact that he isn’t miked to turn one of Ms. Tham’s up-tempo numbers into an impromptu call-and-response duet, trusting that only Ms. Tham and the bassist will hear him.

Not being miked gives him other opportunities as well. At one point, while they were still getting used to my sitting as close to them as possible so that I could see Mr. Wan’s hands at work, Ms. Tham sing a lyrical line and Mr. Wan made some smart-aleck comment in response to it, I forget what. Ms. Tham, not having seen that one coming, dropped her note and started to laugh, whipping the mike away from her mouth as is her habit when Mr. Wan manages to catch her off guard. But then it registered on her that I was laughing too, and her eyes widened as she blurted, “You HEARD that?” Her chagrin was funnier than his original line.

At one point late on the Friday just before I left, they did an up-tempo number in A-flat that from time to time in the verse would transition up to a B-major and then back down. It was late, and I was the only one paying any attention, and Mr. Wan was feeling his oats. So every time they transitioned up, he would start raining black-key glissandi down the keyboard. By the end of the song he was two-handing the things like a pentatonic Jerry Lee Lewis. I don’t typically videotape live performers as most of them consider that very much not comme il faut, but in this case I couldn’t resist and whipped out my iPhone. I spent the last half of the song focused carefully on Mr. Wan as he went more or less nuts, while Ms. Tham tried (and largely failed) to keep a straight face. Only when the song was over did Ms. Tham notice the iPhone, and I got exactly the same sort of chagrined interrogation as before: “You were videotaping that??”

I laughed half-apologetically. “Yeah, I couldn’t resist getting Joshua on the black keys.”

Mr. Wan was laughing himself. “I’ve been waiting all night for that B-major chord.” He threw one more black-gey glissando down for good measure.

It wasn’t until later that I tried to watch it again and discovered that I had missed the on-button when I started “taping,” and so when I thought I was stopping recording I was actually starting the recording; so I missed all of the musical bit and instead got a video of my pants leg and the post-song conversation. Ah well.

Mr. Wan is good with the excuses, too. On their CD Quietly they do a very nice, and very technically impressive, version of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” switching effortlessly back and forth between 7/8 time and a normal 4-beat. Now this is the sort of song that, if you’re going to do it live, requires plenty of practice and coordination, and while Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham are clearly as comfortable with each other as it’s very well possible for two musicians to be, still I knew perfectly well that practically every time I saw them they had a different bassist. So I was pulling their chain a little bit when I decided to tell them, at one of the breaks, “You know, I’m in the mood for a little 7/8, and I like your take on ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ – how would you feel about doing that?” They gave each other an eloquent look and then Mr. Wan laughed, “Oh, we only add the 7/8 in post[-production] – we don’t ever do that in real time.”

But the high point of the week came last Thursday night. Thursday nights are typically slow at the Axis, and for the last hour and a half, while there were other patrons in the lounge, none of them were sitting in the part of the lounge that had line of sight to the trio; so it was very obvious that nobody was listening except me. The bassist, whose name was Benjamin, was clearly a good friend of theirs; and they all began goofing off, though being careful to keep the music going so that the casual listener wouldn’t notice that the background music had stopped. Their laughter got more and more frequent as they each tried to see who could crack the others up – it was like nothing so much as the old Carol Burnett show in which the sketch members all tried to “ruin” the sketch by making the other cast members lose it. The absurdity finally reached its peak when both Ms. Tham and Mr. Wan dropped out to give Benjamin a solo. But as he started his solo, both Ms. Tham and Mr. Wan said to Benjamin, several times, “Ten! Ten!” holding up open hands to show ten fingers. I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure Benjamin did. And I know what happened next – they began deliberately trying to throw Benjamin off, counting and snapping their fingers deliberately off-beat both from Benjamin’s beat and each other’s. Benjamin just closed his eyes, blocked them out, and kept jamming, staying perfectly true to the original beat as his tormentors’ motions and finger-snapping got more and more exaggerated, and as I laughed harder and harder. Finally Mr. Wan sat back down with a wicked gleam in his eye…and started gleefully playing “Für Elise.” But even that didn’t get to Benjamin, whose powers of concentration were clearly extraordinary. By now my glasses were on the table in front of me and my face was buried in my hands, as I was helpless with laughter.

At this point Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham conceded. But Benjamin now clearly decided that it was his turn to torment them. And so he began to act more like a drum soloist than a bassist. You know how, when a rock’n’roll band is taking solo turns they all stick to the beat, but when it’s time for the drum solo he just goes nuts and nobody else even tries to stick with him? Or like the climax of Marty’s guitar jam in Back to the Future, where by the end he’s clearly not really playing the song anymore but instead is just doing cool stuff with the guitar? Well, now I’ve seen a string bassist approach his solo with that attitude. He left the key, he left the beat, he started doing stuff that was as much sound effect as music, he at one point was playing chords on three strings at once in an apparent attempt to turn his string bass into a giant guitar, I started expecting that at any moment he might forget himself entirely and look for a speaker to smash his string bass against – it was a pity there were no groupies there to throw their panties onto the stage. A couple of minutes in, the other two started trying to get ready to come back in as they ordinarily would do – but he clearly was having none of it. I mean, he wouldn’t LET them back in. Mr. Wan made a couple of ineffectual tries to identify the key and join back in but the moment he would try, Benjamin would (musically) run away. Finally Mr. Wan stood back up from the piano bench, looked out across the grand piano at Ms. Tham and the room in general, and said, “Well…you wanna go get a drink?”

Alas, all good things must end; and so a couple of minutes later Benjamin opened his eyes, made eye contact with his partners, and played a recognizable jazz bass line that clearly reestablished beat and key. Miss Tham lifted the mike back to her mouth, Mr. Wan came in on the pickup notes, and off they went to finish the song.

I don’t know about them, but that’s the most fun I’ve ever had involving live jazz.

But here’s the thing: through all of these shenanigans, the music never stopped, and never stopped sounding good. It was, um, unorthodox, but there was never any question that the sounds coming from their instruments were exactly the sounds they wanted to make. And so, as far as I could tell, nobody else even noticed. Their last set of the night ended a few minutes later and they headed off into the night, but I stuck around long enough to ask the girl who was keeping me supplied with potables, “So, did you notice what they were doing?”

She looked at me and furrowed her eyes. “They were playing Beethoven, weren’t they? Did you request that? I could tell you were really enjoying it.” Which was, to be honest, an answer that had rather more truth in it than I had expected; so well done her.

Mr. Wan and Ms. Tham’s contract with the Mandarin Oriental runs through the end of May. They play Thursday and Friday nights in the Axis Lounge on the fourth floor from 8:00 to 12:00, generally in four sets. They also play in the Melt Café across the hotel lobby during Sunday brunch. If you’re in Singapore between now and then, don’t miss them. (While you’re there, if the person who is waiting on you has a name-tag reading either “Nick” or “Karen,” tell them you were sent by Mr. Pierce, formerly of Room 814, who wouldn’t mind just one more Maker’s Mark on the rocks.) And if you want their CD, they’ll probably send you one if you e-mail their manager at noirrecords@gmail.com — or, if you’re in the States, maybe you can save postage by mailing them a check and getting them to give you permission to just rip a copy of mine. I’d like to send some sales their way, if nothing else out of gratitude for their having made my stay in Singapore so much more bearable; and if you like high-quality soft jazz and the old romantic standards at all, then it’ll be money well spent on your side, and then everybody wins.

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One thought on “A most pleasant surprise discovery

  1. Pingback: Low-Budget Review: Noir | redneckperil

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