Aubrey Suwito speaks to Subhadra Devan about his new album, Christmas and all things jazz
MUSIC maestro Aubrey Suwito treasures home for it’s a place where he is most comfortable.
“It is where I can let my hair down, where I can be at my creative best,” says the Malacca-born artiste of Chinese-Baba heritage, talking about his latest and third album called Home.
The album, released under Suwito’s own Cranky Music label, has nine original compositions inspired, says Suwito, by the daily lives of his family. Listening to the tracks is like being wrapped in a comfy blanket. The music is familiar, warm and welcoming.
Suwito has produced several Anugerah Industri Muzik winning albums in Bahasa Malaysia for artistes such as Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, among others, from 2004. But you may remember this award-winning composer for Gemilang, the Anugerah Juara Lagu winner in 2005, sung by Malaysian Idol winner Jaclyn Victor.
Suwito’s previous albums are the mainly instrumental One Busy Street (2011) and the “live” Christmas With Friends (2010), recording which featured sister Juwita, Jaclyn and Patrick Leong, among other artistes.
Coming from a musical family, Suwito sat before the piano at age 6. “Dad was a jack-of-all-trades, played numerous instruments, while mum was the lead alto in every choir she was involved in. She plays the piano too. My sister Juwita, whom many of you know is a gifted artiste in her own right.”
Suwito enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in 1991. “That changed my entire outlook in music. I was a ABRSM Grade 8 student, but everything pop and jazz I picked up on my own.
“(At Berklee) I literally had to ’unlearn’ everything I thought I knew. Voicing, scales, the way I hear stuff... everything.
“I had to drop a lot of bad playing habits and relearn them in a way that would sustain me throughout the years.
“It was like re-laying the foundation of my music... the way I played and the way I thought. That’s why I encourage people to get a good teacher right from the beginning so you don’t pick up bad habits, which are so hard to get rid of.”
Suwito was doing an A-Level business studies course before entering music.
“Up to that time, there seemed no inroads to a music career so rather than just ‘dream’ about it I decided to pursue my studies. For anyone who cares to listen, I often say ‘music chooses you, not the other way around’.
“If you have talent you will end up doing music eventually... especially in Malaysia where our music community is so small... talent gets noticed!”
The music of Home is a mix of Malaysian rhythms, pop-funk and jazz lines. “The album is pretty much who I am, a local musician,” says Suwito, arranger, composer and piano man for Home.
The album also has some of our best musical talents including Jaclyn Victor (vocals on the jazzy Counting Days), John Thomas (drums), Andy Peterson (bass), Aji (guitar), Saturnine’s Nan (guitar), Fly Halizor (bass), Eddie Wen (trumpet), Kevin Choo (saxophone), Roger Chee (trombone), Mohram’s Mohar (bamboo flute), and Steve Thornton (percussion).
“In a country where ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ music have two distinct connotations, Home blurs the lines and redefines music as the universal language it has always set out to be.
“I believe my ‘sound’ is modern jazz with a twist of Malaysia. For example, on Kampong Boy, the melody is Malaysian-ish but the chords are based on the blues.
“On the other hand, (the title track) Home has the percussion playing Asli but the overall feel is bossa nova.
“On paper, it may sound all too easy but to make it work is something else altogether. It’s a mix and match of all my musical influences as a musician born and bred here... influences that shape the sound and identity of who I am as an artiste.
“Ninety-five per cent of my gigs involve backing singers in one way or another, be it on an album production, a ‘live’ concert or even on a reality TV show. So every once in a while it’s nice to return ‘home’, writing and playing the type of music that is not necessarily confined to market demands.”
The album was recorded in three weeks, but “the melodies came in just over 10 days”.
“This seldom happens, but when it does, I have to be thankful,” he says. “Recording took about three weeks... waiting for the right musicians to be available, but it’s worth noting that the rhythm section of John and Andy laid all their tracks in two days. Super-talented.”
Suwito says he chose the musicians “based on whoever was right for the songs and ended up having a wealth of fantastic Malaysian musicians... So apt for an album called Home.”
The tracks include Kampong Boy, with Mohar on the Malay flute, while Home and Out & About, boast local rhythms from Thornton and fine guitar work.
“This just goes to show how amazing our local melodies and rhythms can be. Sometimes we take them for granted, and it really annoys me when people brush off anything that is dangdut, zapin or Asli as being ’not jazz’.
“The world needs to hear these sounds, and my biggest dream would be to perform these songs and the audience goes, ‘this is Malaysian music’, much like how people relate to African music, Argentinean tango and Brazilian samba.”
Penang has its jazz festival and there were a few in the Klang Valley landscape, including Sunrise Festival years ago.
Asked if KL is ready for such an event, given rumours that the capital might see an international jazz gathering in March, Suwito says: “Oh, definitely! I hear there’s something like that in the pipelines so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
“I think the time is ripe for jazz music to reach a larger local audience, and I believe we are ready for it too. I just hope that the ticket prices are affordable enough.
“You know, there was a Malaysian Jazz Festival some time ago... I recall it was held at the PWTC. Tickets were so exorbitant only about 200 people turned up at Dewan Merdeka. The real music fans were priced out! Not a good advertisement for Malaysian jazz.”
HOME, FAMILY AND CHRISTMAS
While Suwito’s wife, Leitin, has written songs for A-Mei and Jacky Cheung, and won an AIM Best Song Award for Awan Yang Terpilu (Ning Baizura), his two sons, he says, are as different as they come.
“Zach, 14, is football mad and picked up drums recently, while Ryan, 6, is the IT-savvy guy whose one-liners are priceless.”
Prodded for a memory of Christmas and home, Suwito says: “I remember the day after we moved into our current home. It was sometime in December, around Christmas. We were both so tired after moving the day before, but the feeling that I had that morning... we had moved often in the past, almost every 2-3 years, but this time it felt permanent, and I felt settled... this time it really felt like Home.
“I felt like this was where our kids would come home to, (many years from now when they are full grown adults), you know... a family home?
“Christmas is usually a time spent with family, and we try to remember it is the birth of Christ and not just an excuse to shop and party.
“Having said that, our family has a little tradition where we allow our sons to choose and open just one present when it strikes midnight, then the rest the next morning.
“I cherish looking at my children’s facial expressions when they open their presents. It is so full of wonder, joy and gratitude... much like the spirit of Christmas.”