The Az Samad Trio is more than just a local jazz band.
Jazz, was to put it simply, not the kind of music that you might have enjoyed growing up as a young man in the 1990s.
Unless you were musically inclined, jazz (or the crowd here) gave you the impression that it was limited to the elite, the middle-aged and the fashionable. Stuff to be enjoyed, no doubt, but not too much.
It was a perception I had of the local scene for years, until I came across the Az Samad Trio.
At a first glance on one of their nights, the trio looked like any other band, casually dressed and ready to play a rehearsed tune done a thousand times before.
Az Samad – the band’s guitarist and leader- cracks a joke, easing the gathered crowd before starting off on one of their pieces.
Then the band’s percussionist, Zalila Lee, starts to tap on her ‘porch board’, playing a hip-hop beat; something you might hear at a concert.
It is an unexpected tempo, especially for a jazzy night, something that the band has not rehearsed for, but Az and his bassist Kevin Theseira do not falter.
In fact, they welcome it.
“Clap your hands!” Az starts in a humorous stutter. “C-c-c-clap your hands!”
The crowd thinks this is part of the act, and keep polite, but Az continues until the audience is roped in to the beat.
The band then plays their song as the crowd realises what just happened, and breaks into laughter while the trio work their craft; an improvised melody.
Weaving local influences
Speaking to me a little later, Az said that the piece was not entirely planned, and that the band had to create the rhythm there and then.
“We didn’t rehearse that. It’s just something that Zalila played. It sounded like hip-hop, and it sort of developed the arrangement right there,” he said.
It is a style that Az and his fellow band members have been wanting to do for a long time; to play something challenging yet enjoyable at the same time.
A late-comer to music, Az picked up the guitar at sixteen, after being persuaded to do so by his father, the national laureate A Samad Said.
Starting with classical guitar lessons, he would later pursue an education at the International College of Music, before going to the United States to attend the Berklee College of Music and finally the San Jose State University where he did a Masters in jazz.
He would play in multiple bands on various occasions, with the idea of his very own trio coming to him during his time in America.
“When I came back, I really wanted to do a project that was my own thing, as opposed to being a member of a band where it was somebody else’s thing.
“It wasn’t my choice [to play the music]…[I wanted to play] music that was challenging and [what] we choose to play, as opposed to playing what is popular or what we think people would want to hear,” he said.
The difference with the Trio, Az said, was more than just covers of songs not normally played in gigs around town.
He said their act, would involve rearranging songs into versions of their own. One example, Az offered, was to reinterpret the Sound of Music jazz waltz classic “My Favourite Things”, and turn it into a groove piece a-la Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”.
The band also has plans to write new material and weave local influences into their music as well.
Theseira, an Aswara (National Academy of Arts, Culture & Heritage) graduate, intends on bringing in Orang Asli beats and traditional Malay rhythms, while Zalila’s influences are more of a hip-hop flavour.
It is also the improvisation that the band insists, is the biggest jazz aspect.
“We do rehearse, [but] there are some things that just happen on stage, and we’re comfortable in going different directions or making up completely new sections for songs,” Az said.
He added that though a song’s melody may not be changed, its nuances would be different.
The band also has interesting chemistry. All of the members are long-time friends, and have performed with each other on several occasions in the past.
It is a quality that has them to engaged in antics; a comedy act of sorts during their time on stage.
Theseira said: “One of the reasons which makes our show special is the element of comedy between the trio on stage. This transcends into the music when we perform.”
But most importantly, Az said he wanted to bring jazz back to its roots; that it was not music for the educated listener, but for the man on the street.
“I think for the longest time, jazz has this association where it’s elite or intellectual music, where you have to understand a lot of what is happening.
“…We’re trying to bring back the whole idea that jazz is a people’s music. I relate to the whole idea of early jazz, like New Orleans jazz or Dixieland. It’s very fun music…It made people happy. It made people dance.
“…[So] I want music that makes people laugh. I want people laughing and smiling, as opposed to people coming to say, ‘Oh, that was a very good solo’,” he said.
With an EP on the way, and several upcoming monthly acts under their belt, the Trio plan to do just this for a very long time.
The Trio have also been known to play at the Mezze Lounge, No Black Tie and will play at The Venue in the future.