In a career spanning thirty years, Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro has done it all. He's played with everyone from Michael Brecker to Charlie Haden, from James Moody to Toots Thielemans and from Cassandra Wilson to Simon and Garfunkel. He has performed all over the world and his performance at the 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival alongside bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt was described by festival director Claude Nobbs as, "an unforgettable set which will remain a classic concert of the first twenty-two years of Montreux.
His phenomenal piano playing aside, Monteiro has directed his energies in a surprisingly wide arc, which encompasses directing Singapore's Jazz Festival in 2001 and the inaugural Jazznote Festival in Singapore in 2007. Down the years he has received as many awards as Imelda Marcos had shoes, was bestowed with the Cultural Medallion of Singapore in 2002 and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in the UK in 2006. He also belongs to a select group of awardees which includes Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Mohammad Ali; although, unlike Monteiro, none of these illustrious names has appeared in Hawaii Five-O.
AAJ met up with Monteiro in Bangkok where he comes out of the closet, musically speaking, and talks about his latest album, Homecoming (Jazznote, 2006). He also talks about his new role as Professor and Visiting Chair of Jazz at La Salle-SIA College of the Arts, reflects on the state of jazz in Southeast Asia, and recalls flying barstools and surreal award ceremonies. Bassist Eldee Young joins the fray in his inimitable style.
All About Jazz: Jeremy, according to my MP3 player you have a maximum of four hours and fifty three minutes in which to state your case, otherwise we'll have to call the whole thing off.
JM: As Dizzy Gillespie said; "If you can't say it in three choruses you ain't got nothin' to say. [laughs]
AAJ: This year saw the release of Homecoming (Jazznote, 2006) which I believe I'm right in saying is your twentieth release?
JM: Actually it's more than twenty. I haven't sat down and counted them, but twenty is not a lie. [laughs]
AAJ: That figure is something of a milestone; do you look back on your catalogue with great pride?
JM: Yes I do. Some of the stuff I've done for Indonesian label Sangaji Music, I've done one or two records that I'm really proud of, one or two that I'm not so proud of but then they sold thirty thousand copies so you know, how can I not be happy with that? Then I've done one or two that I wish I never have to hear again. [laughs]
AAJ: One that jumped out at me from your discography as odd was Songs for You, Karen (First Impression Music, 2003) which is a tribute to the music of The Carpenters. Did someone say, "Hey, do this, it will sell, or did you want to do it?
JM: I wanted to do that. You know, I'm a big Carpenters fan and I was afraid to admit it until I found out that Pat Metheny loves the Carpenters as well. So if he came out of the closet with that then I will. [laughs]
AAJ: Eldee, are you going to come out of the closet as well and say you're a Carpenters fan?
Eldee Young: I'm Muddy waters all the way, Muddy Waters all the way!
JM: As a kid and now, I do love all kinds of music, and although my mode of expression is as a jazz musician there's stuff I want to listen to that I would never want to play. But The Carpenters? When I was fourteen or fifteen I loved the music, the harmonies and I loved the sound of Karen Carpenter's voice. I still think it's one of the nicest voices ever.
So at about seventeen or eighteen years old I thought wouldn't it be nice for me to be able to do a sort of jazz treatment of the Carpenters' hits, which I did do, although the record company toned me down a bit with how jazzy I wanted to make it. So it's not the ideal Carpenters jazz tribute but it's something that I worked really hard on and I was so surprised when Soundstage magazine voted it as one of the three best-sounding high resolution recordings of the particular year, in addition to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. (Columbia, 1965) You never start off thinking it will end up as one of the best sounding recordings in North America in 2003how did that happen? [laughs]
AAJ: Homecoming is your first album of all originals for many years, is that right?
JM: Technically speaking it is my only album of all originals because although I set out to do an album of all originals with Charlie Haden, Ernie Watts and Al Foster in 1989, Always in Love (JJ Jazz Label, 1989) we decided at the last moment to jam on a lesser-known Charlie Parker tune segment and included it on the record. So therefore the record doesn't qualify as an all original album, even though really that's a bonus track.
AAJ: Was Homecoming intended from the get go as an album of all originals?
JM: Yes it was. The reason for that is that very often you do records when they are commissioned by record companies and they always want you to do the standards, which is fine but it's also a bit sad. You know, jazz has got to be a combination of consolidation and expansion and I think there's too much consolidation happening in jazz. Artists should continue to push the boundaries the same way Charlie Parker pushed the boundaries, the way Dizzy Gillespie pushed the boundaries.
The reason I was able to do it this time without worrying what people thought was firstly I was doing it for my own label and secondly the project was financed by the Arts Council of Singapore and so I could do what I wanted. I really enjoyed working on it and I'm really happy with the results.
AAJ: Do you think albums of originals are the way forward for Jeremy Monteiro as a jazz musician?
JM: Consolidation and expansion. Consolidation echoing and reflecting the great standards and expansion with originals.
AAJ: What do you think about, for want of a better term the "new standards Herbie Hancock recording Simon and Garfunkel, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder,[The New Standard (Verve,1996)] and Brad Mehldau recording Lennon and McCartney, Radiohead, Nick Drake, and so on?
JM: Absolutely. You have to remember that all the standards that Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson or Cannonball Adderley, or any of those guys played were the pop songs of their day. I think not enough people do it. I haven't done it and I should, actually take the pop songs of today and do what Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans did with the pop songs of their time. I'm going to do that more.
AAJ: Can you tell us about the musicians on your new album?
JM: Well, the rhythm section is really my working group that I've been working with most the last six yearsShawn Kelley on drums and Belinda Moody on bass. After playing together for so long we have a real good understanding, a near telepathic communication between us. And also [saxophonist] Ernie Watts, I've been making music with him since 1987. Greg Fishman who I've been working with about eight years plays flute and saxophone and there's a percussionist from Singapore called Mohamed Noor.