[Reflection] Jazz at the Red Dot by James Gunawan

James Gunawan is the recipient of Dan Cerf Scholarship for the Jazz @ the Red Dot workshop. He was carefully selected by the generous scholarship sponsor Mr. Dan Cerf, a passionate supporter of music and We Love Jazz SG. In this blog post, James Gunawan has specially written a personal reflection about his Jazz @ the Red Dot experience. Continue below to read. – WLJSG

A Reflection By James Gunawan

“The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.”


Seeing world class, top-of-the-game musicians up close is another experience altogether; it makes your jaw drop, yet exhilarated, because of the things they do that you’ve never imagined possible. I’m so thankful for the scholarship generously provided by Mr. Dan Cerf, without which I wouldn’t even think of going for this workshop. The image of Gregory Hutchinson playing his swing with such a grounded feel and bounce at the same time will be forever burned in my mind as a drummer.

Just for the benefit of those who don’t know what the workshop is about, this is a brief overview.

Jazz at the Red Dot is a 5-day workshop that was held in Singapore, which brought in world class musicians as its faculty members; and among those cats were Gregory Hutchinson, an amazing jazz drummer who has played with so many other great musicians.

Each day of the first 4 days consists of series of classes (music theory, ear training, masterclasses, etc), and ends with a group ensemble session that’s being mentored by one of the faculty members. On day 5, we were all given a chance to perform with our ensemble at botanic garden, in front of hundreds of people.

There are so much things that I have learned from the workshop, but to keep things organised, I shall share my 3 main takeaways, followed by a brief conclusion.

The groove, the swing, the pop

Jazz originated from dance music, and thus, at the heart of jazz is its swing: that feeling that makes people wants to move and dance. This then begs the question, if we were to strip away all the complicated rhythm and harmony in our playing, does it, really, swing? And on all the solo breaks that we do, in which we have practiced countless hours for, does it still have that groove in it?

When I put things in this aspect, it becomes something that is intimidating, yet liberating at the same time. It is intimidating, because, it tells me that I cannot just learn a technique and play in it time – I’ve got to also strive to make it feel good, which surely multiplies the amount of practice required (as if jazz is not already hard enough). Yet, it’s liberating because, well, you may not need such complicated stuff to sound good – just do whatever you know so well that it’s swinging, and you’re great to go.

Serving the music

The first point above does lead into this one: does what we do still serve the music in the aspect of groove – which is one of the foundation of great music?

On a broader aspect, Gregory Hutchinson (drum instructor) and Ben Williams (bass instructor) emphasized in one masterclass that we have to be a team player in band, who’s always doing things to serve the music in the moment, rather than blowing up our ego by showing every single chops that we’ve learned in the practice room.

In our first ensemble session, Greg wants to us to try learning a song we’ve never heard before (Water Babies, by Miles Davis second quintet), which has a rather different feel than most jazz standards – mainly because of the fact that, as he puts it, the horns are the ones keeping the time while the rhythm section is a little more free to give colours and textures. He mentioned to us that the song doesn’t always have to be done that way; we have to listen to what’s happening in the moment, and play appropriately. In the original recordings, Tony Williams (dr) was doing mostly colourings with the cymbals, and doesn’t really define the time; but yet, as we are playing the song, if somehow the horns are having difficulty keeping the time, the drummer has to come in and help establish the time, so that the song doesn’t evolve into a messy blob of sound. In another instance, if the singer has difficulty finding the pitch, the pianist / keyboardist has to assist by giving a chord that helps them find the right pitch.

These are just a few examples on how we can help serve the music, and be a team player in a band. We can only start growing in this area when we start listening to what’s happening around us, and trying to understand how we can makes things sound better. And when we learn to do this, it will bring us one step further in maturing as an artist.

Performance at Singapore Botanic Gardens with Greg Hutchinson’s ensemble group. Photo by BH Photography.

Playing with honesty and integrity

This is something that’s rather new to me, and probably the most abstract of them all – but yet, I believe it will give so much meaning to what we play. I’ve heard it throughout the years, that we’ve got to mean what we play, but have never really understood it until Aaron Goldberg (p) shared his wisdom in his ear training class. Simply put, this aspect can be encapsulated in one question: can we sing accurately what we are playing?

Singing the things that we play essentially requires a few undeniable components:

  1. A clear idea how it sounds rhythmically.
  2. A clear idea how it sounds melodically.
  3. A clear idea on how the phrase starts AND ends.
  4. An ability to translate exactly the idea that we have with full integrity to the instrument.

which, if you think about it, is really not an easy thing to do, and as my friend puts it, is a rather inefficient way to do it. Why would we need to “know” the melodic phrase if I can just run up and down the scale? Why would we need to be able to sing the drum solos if we can just play a rudiments and play it around the toms?

To me, this kinda goes back to music being an artistic expression of ourselves as human beings. Each of us, through our own unique life-experiences, is gifted with our own unique voice. And as we learn to translate them into our instrument, we began to express what we really want to communicate to the world, and not just a collection of bizarre ideas.

To just draw an analogy, let’s imagine having a conversation instead of playing music. For example, say you want to communicate “That sunset is beautiful”; but instead, what comes out of your mouth is something along “Sun yellow yellow marries I wishes” (gosh, this is the most incoherent sentence I can come up with. Yes, I cringed.). What then? Yes it’s English (like, well, playing in the correct scale), and yes it’s pronounced correctly (perhaps like, playing in time in perfect triplet), but does it really have meaning? Does it really convey what you are trying to communicate, even the slightest? And furthermore, will it invite a completely different response than you originally intended? These are just some questions I had in mind, and it hopefully will always be in my mind for the rest of my musical journey.

As such, should learn how to express ourselves in the most honest way possible. Yes, it is not the easiest thing to do (in fact, I still don’t have a good idea how to really do it), but as we learn to communicate what we mean in our instruments with full honesty, we will learn to be an artist that’s true to ourselves, which surely brings so much satisfaction. Speaking what we don’t mean is essentially profanity, and we don’t want to be profane in doing the things that we love most.

A photo with Greg Hutchinson


All in all, Jazz music is an art form, done collectively with other musician. While we learn to express what we really wish to, we should not forget that it has to all be done in the spirit of serving the music, and more importantly, serving individual artistic expression of each musician in the bandstand. It’s easy to say that someone in our band hasn’t practice enough, but the question is, have we learned enough to make those less experienced than us sound better than they could’ve done themselves?

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