Julian Chan speaks to me

April 30, 2014

Julian Chan is an eloquent, intelligent young man who loves gadgets and social media in perhaps equal measure, for the two are in this day and age increasingly interdependent, and so he seems to be always in the front line of both. He has found his voice on the net; he points out social injustices, polices rule-breakers on his facebook page, updates on his work, comments on funny memes and engages in friendly banter with his mates.

And when I speak to him, I find that he weighs his words carefully and his answers are never superficial. Often, they are focused and on point.

But it is onstage that he is clearest. Where he does not talk.



I first met Julian 8 years ago I thought he was naturally talented and technically sound, but he lacked the depth, range and consistency that would only come to musicians in their later years, and his improvisations suspect. Jazz is not easy – though he was already an accomplished musician – I worried for him, as I do for all young musicians, listening intently for avoid notes or errant pitches or solos they couldn’t get out of. Today when Julian’s saxophone speaks it portrays its wielder a man who is mature and confident in his craft, and when I listen I could only imagine the hard work and the experiences he went through to get to this point.

Jazz to me is a state of a high not unlike the effects of hard drugs. At its height, a wave of euphoria hits you, and at once engulfs you in an indescribable bliss, sometimes trance-induced paralysis, often gut wrenching, often almost unbearable.

When Julian speaks onstage he produces rich and assuring chords & scales that, as it builds up, you anticipate that aural moment akin to watching an injection getting closer to the arm. As he speaks, raw emotions swell up and just then, hell breaks loose.


Almost Italian

December 6, 2013

I have Italian neighbours who live on the same floor of the apartment where I live, and we have become friends. Pier says Malaysians don’t say hi in the elevator, and he was surprised I did but I guess i’m almost Italian that way.

I think I also almost understand the language. It helps that Italians are very expressive with their bodies and hands, and its visual clues fill in the blanks as well.

I almost went to Italy, a country I have never been.  When I was in school in the states, and summers I would spend in NYC where I would be at a youth hostel in Harlem, where if I chambermaid-ed twice a week I would live for free, I picked up odd jobs and would save enough to go on heavily discounted freelance courier flights somewhere.

It was a courier flight that I almost took to go to Italy, and I remember it clearly – taking the A or C train downtown to a courier broking house called Now Voyager, talking to a girl called Erin, a Columbia student who was part-timing in that office that summer, and asking for a flight to Rome. She said matter-of-factly that I had to wait a couple of days for Rome, though there’s a flight to Caracas the next day, do I want to go there? To which I also nonchalantly replied, “yes”.

(And so began my decade long love affair with Latin America, which is of course another story.)

And there is a topic of conversation I would always initiate about Italian food, that it shared the same principles as Japanese food.  To most people spaghetti and pizzas and sushi and tempura are representative and symbolic of these cuisines, which is of course true but you’d miss the essence if you think there’s all there is to it.   Italian and Japanese cuisine share a demand for the seasonal, the locally available, the very fresh, and a minimalist attitude – that simple, fresh ingredients should make uncomplicated dishes.

Now that I have Italian friends, I’d catch glimpses of the Italian community in KL, through their usual hangouts and their lunches and their coffee invites. They are a gregarious bunch, and whatever their stories are, they would try to live as dolce a vita as they can here.  I try to do that too wherever I am in the world as well, and I guess I’m almost Italian that way.

David is probably one of the 3 best jazz pianists I personally know, the others being Michael Veerapan & Jeremy Monteiro, and amongst the 3, the best vocalist.  With his wife Junji they form probably the best supported jazz act in malaysia, for a time managing Top Room in Jalan Kia Peng, and playing in places like groove junction, alexis, delucca & no black tie, and the occasional stint abroad.

For some reason whenever I go see them play, and during intermission, we talk “business” – the CD he just produced for Junji with session players he flew in from Bangkok, the amp & speaker shop he partners on Tun Razak, the dream of pooling money for a dive joint/concert space(was that Junji’s dream?) – David, genius musician that he is, wants to be shown the money.

I am drawn to artists as friends because they are so unlike me. My circle of friends in my training or vocation as a physicist or economist or engineer are usually stoic and rational, but usually one-dimensional and boring. Perhaps I am like that, or is now conditioned to. Vicariously I live through these people who create and entertain, and its seedy undertones the smokey clubs & moody temperaments an element of danger, painting the dark of the night, but with the instruments they wield, be it a saxophone or a paint brush, there are moments that they are able to stir an emotion so pure that could not be described. Something of what a poet or a singer or a sculptor does that could not be achieved by a lawyer or an accountant or an economist.

And in its purest form is jazz, defined by what it does not – that it is a free-form, an improvisation, that a piece that is written should never be played the same way, whose players are responsible for the essence of, but not restricted to, to understand instinctively the feel of a moment of a note of a tune, of your surrounding musicians and of your audience.

all the fragilities
of 28 years past
Will you now
hold the future in your hands
Will you
laugh with the careless abandon
of a girl
wearing her first summer dress
catching her first waves
at the sea
wearing teardrops cast in silver
on her neck

Will you at 30
incite a generation of men
to riot
Will you at 40
be mother
to the happiest child in the world
Will you at 50
and flowers bloom. still
at your words
Will you
at the end of your years
look back
and find the world a better place
because you were in it?