The light in the room dims except for a solitary beam. Clear and evocative, the first note of the tenor sax floods the small room with a familiar sweet sadness. Then, as drumstick hits cymbal for the first time tonight, the rhythm section kicks in. The entire room, and its passengers, are in flight once more.
Few nighttime escapades can be as transporting as an evening of quality jazz. Singapore’s musical programmes and venues shift with dizzying regularity, but while the setting may be a moveable feast, the talent is seldom lacking.
Of the regular jazz nights, first up is Kampong Glam mainstay Blu Jaz Café (11 Bali Ln; 6292 3800, www.blujaz.net). Strolling in along the narrow Haji Lane’s standalone boutiques and hookah-toting café kids, you can almost smell counterculture in the air. Or maybe it’s chicken. By the time you spot Blu Jaz’s distinctive yellow frontage and the throngs of people sitting amid the wafts of barbecuing meat, it’s clear that as jazz venues go, these three floors are full of the warm, rootsy, experimental flavour.
For the live varietal, the restaurant bar space on the ground floor boasts an impressive Friday- and Saturday night selection. But something a little unconventional comes in the form of Pushin’On (second floor, last Fri of the month from 9.30pm; www.pushinon.com), one of the island’s best-loved music collectives for funk, soul and left-field jazz.
I meet the group’s MC, Hafez Masterpiece, and we sit down to have a drink in the eclectic lounge, whose oversized furniture and blood-red walls lend it an East Berlin ambience – and whose diamanté-adorned mannequin lampstand appears to start dancing to the music after a couple of whiskies.
Initially launched at the now-defunct Circular Road venue Hideout, Pushin’On moved into Blu Jaz in December 2006, within two months of the venue opening. ‘We were the first independent night there,’ Hafez says. ‘Just like Blu Jaz, we don’t stick to one genre, so the venue has been open and easy-going from the first day.’ Based around a three-way act consisting of two DJs (Shellsuit and Chunk) and a live MC, the collective – with its bands Lion City Orchestra and Mighty Mighty – now fills two floors of the venue.
It wouldn’t be jazz without one or two surprise underground finds, and the intimate Malt Vault (12 Ann Siang Rd; 9026 3466, mikesoldner@ mac.com) fits the bill. Set in the basement of the Screening Room and specialising in boutique malt whiskies, the bar holds Live in the Vault nights Fridays and Saturdays from 9.30pm, featuring duets from seasoned PhD jazz scholars from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music – including guitarist Dr George Hess, acoustic bass player Dr Tony Makarome and Nicole Duffell on tenor saxophone. While the nights have been a well-kept secret, they are soon set to be a regular fixture at the Vault.
When it comes to live jazz, Jazz@ Southbridge was until recently Singapore’s best-known mainstream venue. Despite shutting up shop, the brand survived through a new amalgamation with 7atenine at The Esplanade. Southbridge Jazz@7atenine (8 Raffles Ave, Esplanade Mall; 6338 0789, www.sevenatenine.com). At its launch, owner Eddie Chan told TOS that having seen its lease expire after eight years, the merger came about by accident, when 7atenine managers suggested converting part of the venue into a jazz restaurant. ‘My main concern is jazz, the second is business,’ says the retired architect and musician.‘ The qualification is always that the business sustains the jazz.
Chan explained that being set amid a performance centre like the Esplanade was ideal. Inside, the venue is the polar opposite of Blu Jaz – its designer furniture, clean modern lines and mirrored walls afford guests a premium jazz dining event, right on the river’s edge. While Chan admits sustaining a nightly venue remains an uphill battle, he says his personal passion has been to have a recognised venue for international acts to play alongside local musicians, in an intimate setting. ‘Listening to jazz in a club is different to a concert hall. The interaction is much closer – and that’s what jazz is about.’