By Afeef Ikhwan (21A13B) and Max Chwa (21A01B)
Love, are you there?
That’s the English translation of Amour T’es Là?, the name that Raffles Jazz has given to its annual concert this year. Scenes from 80s indie romance films come to mind when hearing the title; the performances that Jazz put up here definitely achieve that same atmosphere. And the pandemic situation we are currently facing did not in the least deter them from delivering their very best musicianship. The CCA is alive and kicking, albeit in a slightly different form this time around.
Amour T’es La? is essentially an “online concert”—or rather, a full album comprising 14 songs—uploaded on the school’s online learning portal, Ivy. It’s the proud result of a massive group effort that required extensive coordination and communication through various digital means. Throughout this process, members of Raffles Jazz faced numerous difficulties, having to record themselves without the proper equipment or environment whilst learning to mix tracks for the first time. After the completion of each draft, other members of Raffles Jazz (and even alumni) would critique their recordings, and the cycle would begin anew. However, Raffles Jazz pressed on, eventually creating the final product that we can listen to and enjoy today. Although listening to these tracks digitally isn’t as electrifying as attending live performances, it does evoke a distinct sense of intimacy with its own unique appeal.
A’mour T’es Là? gets the ball rolling with “L-O-V-E”, an evergreen swing piece originally released by Nat King Cole in the late summer of 1964. Since then, other prominent figures, including the likes of Michael Buble and the Glee cast, have sung their own renditions of this beloved classic. Raffles Jazz largely sticks to the original arrangement of the song, but their cover is made distinctive through the use of a female vocalist. Du Yilin’s (21S03O) vocals take the spotlight here; the warm, mellifluous tone of her voice is akin to a cool breeze on a summer’s day. “Love was made for me and you,” she proclaims as the song culminates with the crash of the cymbals. “L-O-V-E” is an apt album opener that sets the stage for what is to come—an album focused on the idea of, you guessed it, love!
Coming in at almost seven minutes, “My One and Only Love” is the longest song on the record. Add that to the absence of any vocals, and you have a much-needed instrumental break after the spirited performance of “L-O-V-E”. Lam Weng Chung (20S03Q), the guitarist, and An Haining (20S03H), the alto saxophonist, kick the song off with a duet, having a conversation without words. Halfway through, the song picks up speed and goes into double-time, providing a burst of energy and a change in soundscape for the listener. “My One and Only Love” then returns to its original tempo, possibly representing the ups and downs of a relationship. But one thing remains constant: the sheer skill of the instrumentalists, not unlike the very Frank Sinatra our Jazz musicians emulate.
“For once in my life, I have someone who needs me!” Yilin returns as the main vocalist in the next piece, “For Once in My Life”. As soon as the song starts with lively guitar strums (courtesy of Gladys Li, 21A13B), we just know we are going to be treated to an upbeat affair. It’s hard not to get swept up by the sheer energy of the exhilarating bassline, a far cry from the surreal, dreamlike nature of the previous songs. Raffles Jazz made the right choice in following Stevie Wonder’s arrangement of this song; it’s a welcome change of pace to the overall sound of the album. And despite being the shortest song on the album (barely under three minutes long), “For Once in My Life” injects much-needed energy to the album in the song’s brief running time.
Matching the uplifting atmosphere of the previous offering is “Down in Brazil”, a sweet ditty with roots in the bossa nova genre of the 1960s. The lyrics, which affectionately portray Brazil as a place to forget the mayhem of modern-day life, match the brisk yet soothing melody perfectly. “Down in Brazil” is almost cathartic in nature; it openly expresses the longing to satiate one’s wanderlust. Listening to this song is like experiencing a light breeze on a secluded beach: you savour the cool it brings before it fades away when you least expect it.
Weng Chung, the bandleader for “Down in Brazil”, claims that this is by far his favourite track on the album. In particular, he thoroughly enjoyed working with his band members while producing the track, even with the restrictions posed by COVID-19.
“To witness the juniors learning and growing as a jazz musician in this arduous journey is really the biggest assurance to me as a senior.” he remarked fondly.
“I am also really grateful to my batchmates for helping me in mixing [the songs] and encouraging me along the way,” he added. “To me, this is the end product of all our hard work and I really love it very much.”
Up next—are we in a hotel lobby? “On Green Dolphin Street” certainly provides the classy atmosphere of one! The second song on the album without any vocalists places the limelight fully on the instruments. Its sparse arrangement does not demand much from your hearing, with the exception of Kong Pek Yan’s (20S06A) well-executed bass solo. Our budding musicians have certainly done this song justice, especially considering that this song is a widely-known jazz standard. “On Green Dolphin Street” is easy listening through and through, making it perfect for your study playlist.
Coming right after this is “Tank!”, a favourite of both writers of this article. “Tank!” sounds like something straight out of an action movie soundtrack, which isn’t too far off the mark: it’s the opening theme from the iconic Japanese science-fiction show Cowboy Bebop. It ticks all the checkboxes of a legendary song: a quirky beat, unexpected musical twists, and the ever-charming saxophone. Although A’mour T’es La? has many covers of classics and standards, the CCA’s reinventions of more modern songs give the album a certain relatability, making it at once engaging and artful.
In gruesome detail, Charisse Kwong (20S06A) described to us the painstakingly taxing process of producing the song. “‘Tank!’ isn’t my favourite song in the album because I very AMBITIOUSLY tried to transcribe the entire rhythm section part from a platina jazz cover… and ended up using around 13 different percussion MIDIs. I live by the motto ‘go big or go home’ and so I went absolute bonkers with the panning.”
However, the vast majority of Jazz members share the same enthusiasm as us about “Tank!”. Gladys finds it to be their best work precisely because it was difficult to produce.
“While it was the most painful, and also one of the hardest songs I’ve played, it taught me so many things about music and playing together in a band, even if it was over the internet,” she commented sheepishly. “The process of recording ‘Tank!’ was very memorable, and what you are listening to today is the end result after we created what was originally an utter monstrosity. I hope you listen to ‘Tank!’ and think of our pain!”
“From the multi-instrumentalists that provided the amazing harmonies, to the many, many, many man-hours that the band members put into practising and perfecting the song, the spirit of excellence and unity within the CCA was shown here. Listen to ‘Tank!’, please, listen to ‘Tank!’” Caleb Poon (21S03L) added, not wasting the opportunity to squeeze in promotion at the end.
We are now in Portuguese territory with the arrival of “Desafinado”. Literally translating to “out of key” in English, vocalist Teo Gi Sing (20S06T) could not be further from such a label. She even sings in Portuguese for the entirety of the song—kudos to her for accomplishing this feat! Despite not understanding the language, the nuance and emotion conveyed through her unique interpretation of the song’s vocal arrangement is something you can’t help but admire. After all, music is universal.
After the wistful hues of “Desafinado”, we have the privilege of listening to the more controlled stylings of “Afternoon in Paris”. Unlike the earlier pieces, this song has a certain jaunty playfulness to it. However, it still retains a minimalistic vibe; its entrancing rhythm feels reminiscent of a stroll down the beautiful streets of Paris. Here, the keys and guitar add a dramatic flair to the music whilst making sure that a sense of structure is retained. It’s not hard to see why “Afternoon in Paris” is a jazz standard that has been around since 1949.
With “These Foolish Things”, we see a return to the more sorrowful mood that characterised “Desafinado”. In this piece, the instruments take a back seat, allowing Chiew Chern Faye’s (20S06N) voice to shine, radiant and enchanting. The stripped-down nature of the song places less emphasis on impressing us with technical skill. Instead, it chooses to focus on emotion, lending it a powerful vulnerability as we immerse ourselves in the bittersweet atmosphere.
In sharp contrast, “Cheek to Cheek” rejects the sombre view of love portrayed in “These Foolish Things”. Instead, it seems to revel in the joys of love as reflected in the close, almost brazen intimacy of “dancing cheek to cheek”. The piece features a magnificent scat solo from Yilin—made even more impressive by the fact that she’s only Year 5. As the song peters to its end, the animated beats of Benjamin Silver Mathew’s (21A13A) drumming set it apart from the rest of the songs.
The following piece, “Brazil” (not to be confused with “Down in Brazil”), starts on a mournful note, but quickly becomes one of the most energetic tracks. The use of a shaker and triangle imbues the song with a spark of vitality, while the frequent shifts from major to minor keys lend the piece a sleek and dark yet mischievous edge. It’s almost as if the musicians are teasing the audience with their easy shifts in mood, all the while keeping the same vigorous rhythm. Much like the “watercolour of Brazil” it seeks to paint, the piece is at once cohesive and disparate. One thing’s for sure: “Brazil” is undoubtedly hypnotic.
Even after the first 11 pieces, Raffles Jazz remains intent on keeping us on our toes. “Strasbourg / St. Denis” is the first and only piece in the album that infuses both funk and hip hop, and it definitely shows. The two genres blend with jazz in mesmerising ways, giving the track a dimension that the others lack. This reveals itself in an effortless stylishness that the piece brims with, a sense of laid-back yet daring panache that makes for a refreshing change. The drum solo is a clear example of this. It stands in stark contrast with the more melody-centred performances, stunning the audience with its sheer audacity. This gives the piece a certain je nais se quois that can only be described in one word—attitude.
The buildup of energy and passion in “Brazil and Strasbourg / St. Denis” is only further added to with “Amour T’es Là”, the piece that this concert is named after. It’s a testament to the unity and teamwork that exists within the CCA, with three voices in perfect harmony and the keys, drums, and guitar all given their own moments in the spotlight. The gradual slowing of the music’s pace draws the listener in, only for the song to erupt with vivacity once again, all voices and instruments intertwined together as one complete whole.
“Amour T’es Là” isn’t just a highlight for the audience; it’s also very meaningful to the Year 6s in the Amour band, all of whom have wanted to play the song since last year. “It’s a dream come true,” Charisse confided.
Finally, Raffles Jazz finishes with an interpretation of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. With the entire Year 6 band involved, the piece feels like one final performance before the inevitable pass of the baton. The song itself is filled with nostalgia, fitting for a performance that evokes so many memories in its players, but the way in which it’s been reimagined infuses it with new life. It jolts us from the beautiful, romantic images painted by pieces from more foreign cultures through its overwhelming excitement for the present. The piece takes the playfulness illustrated by previous pieces to its peak, surprising us with the appearance of a male vocalist in the form of Warren Wong (20S03I). Additionally, other instruments are used to imitate brass instruments in a creative attempt at using different effects to create different sounds. By surpassing all expectations, “September” excites the audience with an element of surprise even as the concert draws to a close, invigorating us with a feeling of buoyant joy.
Amour T’es Là —“Love, are you there?”. After such show-stopping performances, it feels impossible not to love the online concert that Raffles Jazz has created. It’s truly heartening to see such a display of musical excellence and resilience in spite of all the adversity that COVID-19 has brought to every one of us. If you haven’t listened to the online concert yet, try it! Who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised.
RI staff and students can access Amour T’es Là here.