The WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble are famous on their own turf and deserve to be vastly better known around the world. 2020 was as hellish a year for them as it was for everybody other than the likes of Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates, and saw the ensemble pared down to a trio. Their latest album, Purnama – streaming at Bandcamp – was originally scheduled for release last year, and merges two themes. The first is the moon and the mysterious lore associated with it. The other is the music of the pre-independence era in Malaysia, where traditional native songs blended with influences from points on the Asian continent, from India all the way to China and around the globe as well.
Interestingly, Asian tonalities come front and center here less than half the time. Vintage jazz and blues vernacularss, and a lyrical neoromantic sensibility, are just as prevalent in these reinterpretations. The band open with an elegant, increasingly jaunty instrumental trio version of Hitam Mamis. a big 1950s hit for crooner R. Azmi. Pianist Tay Cher Siang adds graceful ornamentation to the pentatonically-infused melody, bassist Aj Popshuvit taking a dancing solo as extrovert drummer Adriel Wong – the Malay Rudy Royston – rises from a gentle jazz waltz to a sizzling coda capped off by the piano.
A lively, Brazilian-tinged, similarly crescendoing remake of another crooner hit from a few years later, Bing Slamet’s Lenggang Mak Limah features resonant guitar from Rizal Tony. Then the quartet shuffle jauntily through their reharmonized reinvention of the 1953 Ahmad Jaafar love song Ibu, up to an unexpected shift into swing ballad mode with Janet Lee on vocals.
Wong’s colorful, counterintuitive bursts propel Main Shayar to Nahin, a theme from the 1973 Bollywood crime movie Bobby, into unexpectedly animated terrain beneath the piano’s brooding neoromanticisms. Great song, great new interpretation.
Malay jazz hero Jimmy Boyle’s Putera Puteri also gets a memorably turbulent bustle from Wong, along with austerely purposeful alto sax from Yow Weng Wai. a powerful, McCoy Tyner-esque piano solo and a conversationally triangulated guitar/piano/sax outro.
The simple, folky guitar-and voice version of the love ballad Jingli Nona here – sung by Tony – draws on the bawdy Portuguese-Javanese patois version Siang heard as a kid. Tunggu Sekejap, a lament from the 1958 Malay film Sergeant Hassan originally sung by director P. Ramlee, gets a mutedly lilting piano trio remake with singer Izen Kong out in front. Siang’s scrambling solo comes as a real jolt.
Lee returns to the mic for a coy, knowing version of Penang Samba, a bouncy 1950s hit for Malay chanteuse Lena, referencing the city’s hotspots of the era. Jocelyn Wong sings another Lena hit, Hatiku Rindu, ranging from a mysterious hush to a moody intensity as the band sway matter-of-factly through its thorny, enigmatic chromatics. The duel between Tony and Siang before the last chorus is one of the album’s high points.
Siang’s emphatically articulated chromatics fuel an aggressive take of Joget Malaysia, a 1964 P. Ramlee shout-out to post-imperialist nation-building: it’s the best instrumental on the album. Song of Crossing at Dawn is based on a funny don’t-want-to-wake-up folk song from the Chinese immigrant community, Tan Jie’s frantic shakuhachi giving way to Siang’s insistent piano and a growing monsoon from the drums. This dude does not want to get out of bed!
The band wind up the album with the title track, mashing up a 1954 film musical number with Debussy. Tan Chee Shen’s dramatic vocals and Ng Chor Guan’s theremin add a chilling Lynchian edge. What an absolutely fascinating and unique way to end a fascinating and unique album.