Interview: Tapestry – Jeremy Monteiro with re:Sound | The Flying Inkpot
Thu 22 Jan 2022, 4.30pm & 8pm
Singapore Conference Hall
Jeremy Monteiro, piano/director
Seah Huan Yuh, leader
re:Sound Chamber Orchestra
Are you a jazz or classical music purist? If so, Jeremy Monteiro and re:Sound Chamber Orchestra invite you to consider a different perspective of the presumed jazz-classical divide in Tapestry, a concert which will juxtapose the music of “classical” composer Maurice Ravel and jazz greats Chick Corea and John Coltrane, as well as Monteiro’s own original works, to bring to audiences a more ‘classical’ side with his own symphonic jazz works.
A jazz pianist, composer and producer, Monteiro is no stranger to jazz aficionados in Singapore and abroad, having received the Cultural Medallion in 2002 and the Public Service Medal in 2021. With more than 40 solo albums to his name, he has performed with some of the most illustrious names in jazz. Aileen Tang chatted with him to find out a little more about this bold collaboration.
First of all, why ‘Tapestry’? “Well, I think the word means a coming together and weaving of different elements and musical colors,’ says Monteiro. “And so I think that’s why when I chatted with Mervin Beng (Ed: Chairman of Resound Collective), we talked about the name ‘Tapestry’ – which I think is a nice handle to use!”
Classically trained in piano but introduced to jazz as a teenager by his father, Monteiro has long had a foot in both worlds. Are jazz and classical music that different? Not in his book. “Music is just music. Improvisation – the hallmark of jazz – was a very big part of classical music,’ he says, pointing to Bach’s variations and Liszt’s cadenzas as examples. “[musicians in the past] notated [Liszt’s] cadenzas and nowadays classical pianists play the written notation – when in fact cadenzas should be improvised.”
The concert on 22 January will begin with re:Sound Chamber Orchestra performing ‘Petite Symphonie à Cordes’, Rudolph Barshai’s orchestral arrangement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, before Monteiro joins them for six of his own compositions in the symphonic jazz form; five of these will be world premiere performances.
Although known for his numerous works for jazz ensembles, Monteiro reminds me that he has written several orchestral works too and that one of them – his Overture in C – even won a silver medal at the New York International Radio Festival in 1991. He stopped writing orchestral works for a period after that to concentrate on writing for large ensembles and being a jazz pianist.
“But the siren call of going back to writing orchestral works started about six, seven years ago and I’ve been doing more and more of that,” he shares, “And this is sort of moving with my five-year plan of eventually working with people like OMM and SSO with symphonic jazz works – not just mine but international works and local orchestral symphonic jazz writers like Chok Kerong who is already an amazing writer.”
Monteiro’s jazz work is legendary, and he names Grammy Award-winning American saxophonist Ernie Watts as having inspired him with his work ethic, and Grammy Award-winning bassist Eldee Young as his big influences – ‘[Eldee] taught me that the operative word in playing music is play because sometimes music can be a serious heart attack. So don’t play so seriously! And he would encourage me to make sure to infuse strong communication with the audience”.
But his ‘classical’ output is less well-known. I ask him which composers have had the greatest influence on him. ‘Ravel and Debussy,’ he says immediately, “I love the French Impressionistic harmonies and I love the blues”. He describes his approach to improvisation as a more melodic approach against the “rich impressionistic harmonies of Ravel and, maybe to a lesser extent, Debussy”, giving us a hint of the kind of soundscape we can expect to experience at the concert.
It is a soundscape that we’ve experienced far too little of, but especially in the last two years. With jazz being so dynamic and the whole element of live performance being such an important part of it, I ask Jeremy if it has been even more of an uphill climb for musicians of this genre. Musicians’ livelihoods have indeed been severely affected, he says, and shares that in order to provide short-term financial aid, the Jazz Association (Singapore) – which he co-founded in 2016 – started a Crisis Fund for musicians who are in “financial distress”.
His own experience, however, during the pandemic has been an unexpected one.
“I’ve gone through a very strange dichotomy,” he explains, “On the one hand, my income has gone down by more than 50%. But in the last few years, I have had probably the best years in my career in terms of creative output. This concert has been postponed three times, but it has only allowed me to spend more time refining my compositions and the repertoire that we will hear on the 22nd of January is really quite perfect in a way. I also received the National Day Award – the Public Service Medal this year. And for the first time in my life, I had an album in the top 20 of the US Jazz Charts and now a second album running at 33 and expected to go into the top 20 or even top 10. So how do you explain this?”
“There’s a thing called anti-fragility,” he continues, “I seem to be one of those people who thrive in the worst of times because I’ve suffered a lot during the best of times. The best of times is when I’ve actually been the most stressed and had the most challenges. So there is this phenomenon of having done better in the last two years than almost my whole career”.
How does he envision strengthening the weaves brought to the fore in ‘Tapestry’?
Monteiro’s vision is that there may eventually be a symphonic jazz organization: “I want to bring together jazz players, students and fans, with classical music players and students – as well as fans of classical music – so as to enlarge our common space”. “It doesn’t matter if I’m the one to create this organization,” he points out, “But my actions now will create a team of people who [can go on] to formalize this.”
He laments that everyone only thinks of Gershwin’s An American in Paris when “Symphonic Jazz” is mentioned. “[Symphonic jazz] is very big in America and Europe,” he says “But in Asia, it’s only Japan and a little bit in Korea. So hopefully Singapore will rise as one of the protagonists”.
He muses, “And we may go off and do our own thing but there’ll be a few beautiful occasions when we all come together to create this music and to enjoy this tapestry of jazz and orchestral music.”
Tickets for Tapestry are available from SISTIC