After spending 18 years establishing himself on the Malaysian jazz scene, Julian Chan is taking the next step towards achieving one of his musical dreams. The saxophonist, who is best known as a member of jazz band WVC, is literally putting his name on the line with the Julian Chan Jazz Orchestra (JCJO), a newly formed big band-style ensemble that he hopes will become a long-term community orchestra project.
And he is doing it with flair. He is partnering the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) for Spectrum: An Evening of Jazz, a concert held in conjunction with the much-lauded Spectrum music series that makes its return for the KL International Arts Festival 2018.
“It is something I have wanted to do for a while,” says Chan. “And some of my colleagues also felt that we could do with a big band in Kuala Lumpur, because there are not really any big bands like that around, apart from the RTM Orchestra, but they mostly do in-house shows. I mean, some people have tried to start orchestras over the years, but unfortunately, they weren’t sustainable. I am not sure if this project will be sustainable, but I am just going to try anyway.”
It all started when DPAC artistic director Bernard Goh asked if Chan would be interested in putting on a show early in the year, offering its rehearsal space at no charge. He decided to take the plunge and JCJO began to take shape in March.
Starting with his friends, colleagues and even students, the saxophonist gathered a sizeable 18 members. “So we have five saxophonists, four trumpeters, four for the trombone, a rhythm section of about three to four people … and a flautist,” he lists.
The flautist, a young musician who is still a student at UCSI University — where Chan is a part-time lecturer — was an unusual addition to a big band orchestra. “Usually the flute is doubled by a saxophonist but this young musician wanted to take part. She is not a jazz musician, but I don’t mind having her and adding to the sound,” says Chan.
In some ways, that is the spirit behind his vision for the orchestra, which he hopes to keep open for people to come and play together. “This means that the members are not necessarily fixed. There can be different players. I never had the chance to join an ensemble like this growing up, so I thought it would be nice to create that opportunity, not just for young people but for adults who never had the opportunity,” he explains.
If Chan’s vision comes true, JCJO will be the first community jazz orchestra in town. But for now, he will be happy with a good showcase this week, as this is one of the biggest projects he has undertaken to date, taking on the role of producer.
Nevertheless, he has the backing of some eminent local jazz musicians, including guests like Malaysia’s top jazz pianist Michael Veerapen and the “first lady of jazz”, vocalist Junji Delfino, as well as WVC bandmates KJ Wong and AJ Popshuvit.
They will play alongside Chan for the second half of the concert as part of the Julian Chan Quintet. Joining them will be Eddie Wen, a UCSI colleague who plays the trumpet and flugelhorn.
JCJO will be setting the mood for the night with a big band classic standard, Count Basie Orchestra’s Splanky. Another jazz orchestra standard is Satin Doll by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The ensemble will also perform songs composed and arranged by the famed Michael Philip Mossman, known for his prolific work with a wide range of big bands, and whom Chan had the privilege of learning under during his Masters degree studies in New York.
They will also perform one of Delfino’s favourite songs, That Old Black Magic, which has been specially arranged by Michael Veerapen for the big band.
In the second half, the concert will take on a small group jazz atmosphere, as the quintet will perform a mix of original compositions and classics. Original works include Delfino’s debut album song, It’s Alright, Veerapen’s Consequences, and a composition titled Cannonball, written by Chan’s saxophone professor Antonio Hart.
Inspired to pick up the sax when he bought a Dave Koz album as a child, Chan says his foray into jazz music was a gradual one. “I was attracted to the element of improvisation in jazz music, and the more I got into it and the more I had the opportunity to study it, my appreciation and passion for pursuing it became more pronounced,” he says.
Yet the trained accountant thought that music would be a hobby with, perhaps, some moonlighting. Chan, who turns 40 years old this year, credits the timeliness of his entry into the local jazz scene that helped establish him as one of the more prominent jazz saxophonists in Malaysia.
“There were already quite a few saxophone players out there when I started performing. But I think the opportunities were not really there to grow and perform original music — not just jazz music — in the earlier days. If you look into how the Malaysian jazz scene developed, the person who paved the way was really Michael Veerapen. He opened the first jazz club in Malaysia. His contribution is highly understated. I think my peers and I came in at a good time,” he says.
He adds that the talent pool in Malaysia is wide and growing, both in quality and quantity, but observes that there is still a lack of platforms for them to hone their craft. “That is why I would like to do my part to at least open up some opportunities for these talents to grow, go somewhere or make something of themselves in music,” Chan concludes.
'Spectrum: An Evening of Jazz — The Julian Chan Jazz Orchestra & Quintet' will be on for one night only on Thursday, Sept 6 (8pm) at DPAC. Tickets are priced at RM55. To purchase, click here.