In this special fourth instalment of our Singapore International Jazz Battle (SIJB) 2018 Interview Series, we talked to Lee Peng Lim, an aspiring Malaysian pianist who in 2017 won a spot to perform at the WA-Meets-Jazz festival in Japan.
1. You have performed at WA-Meets-Jazz in Japan. How do you think the exposure to a foreign community shapes your perspective about jazz in South East Asia?
I have attended some jazz festivals and workshops in South East Asia, and WA-Meets-Jazz is one of my favourites. I went to the Singapore International Jazz Festival, Thailand International Jazz Conference, Taiwan International Summer Jazz Camp and Thailand Jazz Workshop. In Malaysia, we have the Penang Island Jazz Festival, Borneo Jazz Festival, KL International Jazz and Arts Festival, Malaysian Jazz Piano Festival etc.
Most of the festivals invited international artists (beyond just South East Asia) to perform and give talks, which I think is a very good platform for the musicians around the world to share their experiences and discuss about jazz. This allowed me to see the diversity, preferences and the growth of the jazz community. Nowadays, some festivals have developed jazz into a crossover genre, infusing rock and ethnic music. Due to the different cultural influences, every country has their own perspective and method of developing jazz, by using their ethnic instruments or own language, which I find interesting.
2. How did you end up joining the WA-Meets-Jazz Asia Audition x Big Band? What was your preparation process and performance experience like?
I did not know about the WA-Meets-Jazz Asia Audition until I saw a Facebook post from a friend, Muhammad Abdul Karim, who is the only Malaysian who got into the Asian Youth Jazz Orchestra, organised by the Japan Foundation Asia Center. There was an audition song list and I decided to record a piano solo on “Mercy Mercy Mercy” and sent them the audio file. After a month, I was informed that I was shortlisted as a finalist. It was then followed by a Skype interview with the chief producer, Yumatonic and the committee staff, Chiemi Suzuki. In two weeks time, I received another email. It was the confirmation to perform in the festival with other musicians from Japan and Thailand. The musical director, Yuki Arimasa connected us (Ravee on trumpet, Nohara on bass and Kohei on drums) to discuss the song list.
Due to the limited time, the band did not have a slot to rehearse together before the performance. What we did was discuss the details of the songs via email and play them by ear on the spot, which was really exciting. Despite how everyone’s musical style was different, the interaction and adaptation had to happen fast during our performance as we all came together and spoke the language of jazz.
3. As the finalist of the WA-Meets-Jazz Asia Audition x Big Band, you were invited to perform in Japan. How did your playing and perspective of music change?
Performing at WA-Meets-Jazz Festival was amazing. I love the idea of infusing Japanese culture with jazz music, especially Bugakuza, the samurai art with avant-garde jazz band, and the life painting with a jazz trio. My lecturer once remarked that jazz could “marry” into a lot of genres. I agree with that. It generates public attention and curiosity, allowing them to see the “marriage” and history of the art and music.
4. Having performed in Japan, how do you think you can take that experience to develop the jazz scene in your country?
Malaysia is a multicultural country, heavily influenced by the Malay, Chinese and Indian, and of course the indigenous ethnic groups in East Malaysia. I think it would be very good to have a crossover of Malaysia’s culture and jazz, to create the awareness of our traditional culture and the music that we love. There are more and more musicians in Malaysia doing this and I hope we could organise more jazz festivals to feature this concept or do more workshops to educate the public about jazz history music appreciation.
5. If you can choose one act to see live (past or present), who would it be and why?
I would like to see Bill Evans live. “Very Early” was the first tune I learned in my second year of degree studies. The melody and harmony of it was so beautifully written and I started transcribing his solo and learning his voicings. From there, I listened and watched a lot of his videos.
6. What is the one principle you live? (e.g. quote or philosophy)
The most effective way is to do it, and be serious and sincere.
7. When did you decide jazz is something you wanted to seriously pursue? What makes this music special to you and how is it different from other genres?
I learned electone in Yamaha since 4 years old, playing a lot of contemporary songs, many of which were jazz tunes. My lecturer suggested jazz as a major during my first year of Bachelor Degree of Music in University Putra Malaysia. That was where I started my journey. Tapping the rhythm while listening to B.B. King was my first jazz lesson in university. No piano and lecture notes were involved, only attentive listening and this caught my interest. I wanted to play like the musicians in the record.
The learning journey was not easy for me, as honing my improvisation skills took time. Jazz is like mathematics for me too; you have to think fast and find solutions for every change. Of course, I had to immerse myself in the jazz community and friends who always jam and analyse tunes together. Jazz is also an art of correction; like what we make of our life, there is no second take in a live performance. Every take is uniquely played even though the tune is the same, and I really like the interaction between band members when playing.
Jazz connects people; it is like telling your friends a story and expressing your feelings using this common language. Every performance is a different story.
8. Do you think jazz competitions are a catalyst to jazz music practice in your country? Do you think the Singapore Jazz Scene will benefit from the Singapore International Jazz Battle?
Jazz competitions are definitely a strong catalyst to the practice of jazz music, but I would say it is just one. I joined the Kuala Lumpur Jazz Piano Competition in 2016 and learned a lot through the feedback and advice received from the judges. I am looking forward to the Singapore International Jazz Battle, and I am sure it will discover more talents and enrich the Singapore jazz scene.