The Bangkok combo of Kom Wongsawat, Pornchart Viriyapark, Juthamas Saisaeng, and Naswin Narintragul met at Bangkok’s Alone Together club to live record their four new compositions for the Sister Cities grant:
1. “Mysterious Path” – Pornchart
2. “Substantial Clusters” – Kom
3. “Drive-into-the-Space” – Aswin
4. “Dorothy” – Juthamas
Please enjoy the Facebook live performance linked above!
The word “Marajas” is from the Mahidol College of Music Jazz Department chat group that we use for internal departmental communication. One day, we were going to have an event on campus on the following day. I asked Kom Wongsawat to help print out some posters with a QR Code and post it “here and there” (ที่ต่างๆ, which reads “Tee Tang Tang”) around the room.
Hours later, Kom had done all the work, except that he did not understand what I meant by saying “please produce posters with a QR code and post them Marajas.” I now didn’t understand what Kom was writing about either. When I checked back to the message I wrote, I figured out that while typing (and rushing), my right hand had shifted to the right. So, the word for “here and there” (again, ที่ต่างๆ or Tee Tang Tang) became “Marajas” (มราจาส), which is not a real word in Thai or English. And that word became a topic of discussion for a little while. Some said it sounded like the name of exotic food. Some have tried to shift hands to type this or other new words.
I have liked this word so much (whether in Thai or English spelling) and always kept that in mind. When the opportunity came to commemorate the DC-Bangkok jazz exchange, “Marajas” was given to this tribute.
When we were in DC, most of our time was spent in a peaceful residential area (Mount Pleasant neighborhood), where we stayed and met with great people with great hospitality. The whole trip involved staying with great hosts, getting to know great musicians, playing for really attentive audiences, meeting with an old friend from our old days, and of course meeting with Will and his family. So, this music reflects the feeling of the warmth I feel from visiting Washington, D.C. last year.
In late January of 2020, three other musicians and I traveled to Bangkok as part of a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant to perform at the Thailand International Jazz Conference (just outside Bangkok) and to give a few concerts in the city. In addition to myself on bass, there was Herb Scott (saxophone), Amy Bormet (piano), and Will Stephens (drums). We were accompanied by my now-wife Arianna and Will’s wife Trina and their young son Ayaan.
This trip was a special one, and it would come to seem all the more special in retrospect as 2020 became the year we know it as. I had never been to southeast Asia before, and the journey to Thailand included the longest flight I’ve ever been on. Bangkok is a city like no other I’ve ever visited, an exquisitely crowded, hot, and intense place, defined in equal measure by its Buddhist temples and its opulent shopping malls, its palaces and its night life, its cosmopolitain glamour and its pollution and poverty. It’s also home to an ever more vibrant jazz culture, both in terms of university-level jazz education (such as at Mahidol University, where the conference and festival were held) and a local performance scene.
Bringing music to eager audiences in a strange new place was a thrilling experience, one my companions and I were tremendously lucky to have had when we did—at almost the last possible moment before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. For me, the trip now seems like a final, culminating adventure in that bygone world people now refer to as “The Before Times.” I often think of it as a “last hurrah” in my pre-Covid life and career, and so I titled this piece “Last Hurrah, in Bangkok.”
The only instrument in the recording is double bass, and I use it in several ways. In addition to a melody first played pizzicato and later arco, I added percussive parts by tapping on the side of the instrument and by bouncing the bow on a muted string. There is also a smattering of other sounds that are both ornaments to the melodic material and timbral points of interest in their own right. In writing it all, I was inspired, on the one hand, by the speed and complexity of Bangkok, by its tangle of highways, rivers (of water or of vehicles), labyrinthine markets, and constant teeming activity, and on the other, by the languor its tropical heat tends, at a certain point in the afternoon, to induce (while the activity continues all the same). This dual impression of the city forms the basis for, respectively, the bulk of the piece (which is fast), and the ending (which is slow). The complex melody weaves through mixed time signatures and intense syncopation, kind of like our van navigating the chaotic urban maze, amidst the many sounds and smells of the city, on the way to our gigs. The piece also includes a “lament”-style bass pattern (meaning a line that descends from the tonic, especially in a minor key, often used to connote sadness). In thinking back on the Bangkok trip, I’m also reminded of the sorrow that awaited the world, and this context of oncoming sorrow is intertwined with the alternately frenetic and languid feeling of being in the city.
I’ll conclude by saying that I believe the DC-Bangkok exchange is an illuminating, exciting, and needed cultural-artistic endeavor that I hope will continue. It offers musicians in both places a wonderful opportunity for learning and growth, and as I hope “Last Hurrah, In Bangkok” demonstrates, it left a lasting musical impression on me.
Recanting my experience traveling to Thailand in January of 2020 is just as surreal as it was to come back to a country completely unaware the fate that the year had in store. When I was told that we were heading to Thailand, to be honest, I had forgotten that we even applied. Furthermore, I had never traveled that far before and knew absolutely nothing about Thai culture and history. I quickly prepared as best I could—searching Youtube, Wikipedia and Google for as much information as possible and, I even got a Lonely Planet travel book for Christmas that I brought with me. When I learned that the movie The Beach was shot there, I could not wait to find a way to go there at some point during our stay. I started to make a mental checklist of places I hoped to visit outside of Bangkok, since I did not know the next time I would be able to come back.
Quickly my excitement turned to worry when American news outlets were reporting this new virus—though based in China at the time, it was deemed highly contagious. I mentioned my worry to our group several times before we left, and each time I was assured that not only would we be fine. I was worried the entire flight there, but by the time we landed and settled in, my worries quickly subsided. Immediately noticeable was the warm weather and the very friendly students who picked us up from the airport. Mahidol University’s campus is beautiful and so serene; starting there on our trip really helped ease me into the hustle and bustle of Bangkok later on. And to hear these incredible students in Thailand, playing Jazz music, was incredible. In a lot of ways I felt at home amongst a community of people that speak music despite us not speaking the same spoken language. It was also great to meet and hang out with the other acts—legendary musicians that I would probably never meet in D.C. I had a great time having lunch with saxophonist Javon Jackson as he recanted stories of him on the road with the Art Blakey band.
Although I felt very comfortable at the festival, I could not help but wonder how much American culture has changed Thai culture. And as a Black man, how our music has influenced Thai music. I know that while Jazz is an American-born genre, there has been a huge decline in venues, album sales and popularity, and now many of the consumers are also musicians themselves. I wondered if hip hop had the same effect in Thailand. My quest brought me to an online article published by High Snob Society that listed the “10 best Thai rappers you need to know,” and while going down the list I was amazed how much our American rap had influenced Thai youth. I became an immediate fan of one of the only female artists on that list, who goes by Nur$etime. I played her song, D Tor Jai, over and over, and despite not understanding what she was saying I could totally feel the vibe of the song. It also helped that she threw in bits of English throughout the song.
The festival came to a close, and we were to head to Bangkok to perform at Jazz clubs there. While excited to do that, I still wanted to find a way to get to a club that played Thai rap. I started making plans before we left the university for Bangkok of places that I would try to see in between performances. I knew I wanted to go to Phuket, Chiang Mai and possibly Pattaya and that beach from the movie, The Beach. Once we arrived in Bangkok, we checked into our AirBnB, and first thing I did was plug in my phone to charge, as it had just died. And that was the last time my phone was on during that trip. My phone never came back on, and I knew that my plans to escape to those other cities were canceled. Luckily, I had my iPad with me, and I could communicate with friends via social media, but I could only use it when connected to wifi. I did not want my phone to ruin my trip, and I was saved by the fact that my long time friend, Amy, was on the trip, because she let me use her phone and we could explore together. We went on as many adventures during the day as we could. We went to Wat Intharawihan, Jim Thompson house, traveled by canal and went to a night market and shopped. But I still longed to experience the nightlife beyond the Jazz clubs that we were playing. I figured the safest alternative was to explore the nightlife of the neighborhood we were in. Our place was on Soi 11, and I found a bar close by that had live music called Apoteka. It was a safe first start, and I noticed a lot of expats, so I figured I could find out more information about where to go from them. During one of my first nights out, I met a beautiful Thai woman and we ended up meeting up several times before I left. Mainly to learn about each other for the short time I was there. I also was the only person in the group that was not married or engaged, so when the gigs were over, I did not want to just sit in my room alone. By the end of the trip I had fallen in love in many different ways—Nur$etime’s music and Thailand and beautiful country and delicious food and this beautiful young lady. That experience later became commemorated in two songs. “Private concert” is a romance song, with a vibe similar to the Nur$etime song and the bells and chimes that are played throughout are similar to the sounds and tranquil spirit of the Thai temples. The second song, Soi 11, plays on a theme that is reharmonized four different ways, but the melody is basically the same. The four of us—Will, Amy, Ethan and myself—all played Jazz together at night, but had completely different experiences during the day and after the gig. Both songs hint at the feeling of desire, yearning and wanting. And when we got back to America those feelings lingered as we were we told that we would have to quarantine. I hope to return to Thailand if not to see the young lady again at least to satisfy my longing to see that beach.
In late 2018 I was afforded the opportunity and privilege to join a newly formed initiative named “The DC Jazz Collective.” The Collective is an assortment of diverse musicians that are brought together to be ambassadors for Jazz music in Washington D.C. In 2019, the Collective traveled to Bangkok, Thailand to tour the city and participate in the “Thailand International Jazz Conference” (TIJC) at Mahidol University. While in Bangkok, one of the stops we performed at was a jazz club named “Jazz Happens!”. This is a regular jam session spot for the local community as well as jazz students of the nearby universities. For me, the experience of opening the session that night with a set of original music and compositions was an incredible one. The fellowship and music was so amazing and authentic. People came out really supported the event. From my time there and especially at “Jazz Happens!” I was inspired to compose this song. “Jazz, Happens!” because….JAZZ HAPPENED!!! I hope you enjoy my musical interpretation of that evening.
The Black American music we call Jazz is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the United States, but has evolved into a truly global music, with fans and performers around the world. We had an opportunity to meet and play with some of that global community during our trip to Thailand with the DC Jazz Collective in 2019.
I learned about the American roots and global reach of the music earlier, when I lived in Israel in the early 1990s. I studied jazz piano with the great Israeli pianist Nahum Perferkovich, who had emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In one of our first lessons, Nahum told me that the rhythm of jazz was rooted in American speech. It certainly wasn’t the music of Russian speech. Nahum told me how he had traveled to New York early in his career to experience first-hand the sounds and patterns of American English that influenced the music.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to travel and join jam sessions around the world. It was always a pleasure to find musicians in Germany, France, or Singapore who spoke and played the language of jazz even though they may not have had Nahum’s immersion in the American language that it draws from. I had a similar experience in Thailand, hearing performers play this music we love at the same level as their American counterparts.
As we heard from the Thai musicians who visited Washington, they bring the influences of their own language and culture to their jazz performances and compositions. The Thai language may not be the language of jazz, but as a tonal language it has its own music that accompanies the rhythms of Thai speech. For this composition, I looked to that music of the tones and traditional Thai music for inspiration, hoping that these might open up new melodic and harmonic structures and sounds that I hadn’t used in previous writing.
It’s worth noting that it’s not possible to play traditional Thai scales on the piano or other brass and woodwind instruments used in jazz. The traditional scale divides the octave into seven equal intervals, resulting in tones that don’t match the notes available on my piano.
“Mahidol Mood” started with some musical sketches based on the five basic tones of the Thai language, which I arranged in fourths. I spent a couple of days exploring those sounds and patterns, adding harmonies based on the melody and chromatic movements. This was a conscious attempt to avoid the chord progressions associated with traditional jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. The first section of the piece features a melody based on my interpretation of the Thai tones. The second section sets up a groove based on the harmonies of the first section, adding a pentatonic melody and opening for solos against a stop time rhythmic background.
I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the culture and jazz community of Thailand with the DC Jazz Collective. I think that experience helped me think outside the compositional box and create a work that captures some of the influences of that exchange.
The first time I went to Bangkok was when I performed with the DC jazz Collective sister city program. I quickly became enamored with the city. It has the complexity of big city life combined with the peaceful Buddhist belief system which brings harmony to the perceived chaos. The combination of Eastern and Western cultures blends well together which made me feel at home while experiencing a “new” ancient culture. I got the feeling that life in Bangkok could be as simple or as complex as I choose to make it. I like options. As a bassist, I get to play a wide variety of music, thereby satisfying my desire for options. I find that playing bossa nova music provides similar musical possibilities. The bossa nova feel is laid back and relaxing. However, with the right musicians, the song can get very complex and cycle through multiple styles and feels before returning to the original laid back feel. The Bangkok Bossa has that potential. The melody is simple and laid back. But during the solos, there is the freedom to flex your creative muscle and incorporate other musical styles thereby intertwining complex musical ideas within a simple musical structure. Once you’ve had your fun, you can go back to the laid back bossa nova feel. Bangkok made me feel similarly. I enjoyed the hustle of the city as well as the serenity of the temples and ruins of the countryside. Having the ability to have eastern and western cuisines right next to each other is just another beautiful aspect of living in Bangkok. Bangkok provides lots of life choices. Bossa nova music allows for multiple musical ideas. For me, Bangkok and Bossa Nova music go together.
My piece “Call” was inspired by our trip to Thailand, and the musical concept of “the call”. “The Call” is when the band takes a break, and the bandleader wants to start the show again. They head to the stage and start playing alone, declaring the start of another set, and the band walks up to join in.
Since returning from Thailand I have been playing alone in my home for months. As a freelance musician, calls were no longer coming in, and like many others I pivoted to work online. I miss my daily interaction with other musicians on the bandstand and off. I often talk to music students about music being a calling, not just a job, and this break has made me recognize that performing brings so much joy into my life. Despite the stress and depression, the piano continues to be a comfort for me, and an important mental health routine as I write and practice daily. I have never been more grateful to be a musician and have this music to keep me afloat.
Traveling to Bangkok was my last trip out of the country before the pandemic, and was a powerful experience performing with the band, jamming with new friends, and listening to amazing music at the jazz festival. Every night I would call my husband and tell him all my favorite moments of my day. I told him how I casually chatted with Rachel Z, an amazing jazz musician at the festival, over breakfast. I described how I went all over Bangkok looking for giant Buddhas and speeding in water taxis down canals. I bragged about our jam session, that it lasted all night and the young women from the local college were excited to “sit in” with a woman playing in the American band.
These calls solidified and crafted the stories of my memories, and I hold onto them now. As I sit alone again and again at the piano, writing new music and thinking of the next time I will be able to take the call, join a band, travel abroad, and immerse myself in a new culture through music.
There are three sections of the piece. The initial theme is “the call” representing the project coming together and our bandleader Will organizing the trip and our group calls with the members of the band. The call is repeated several times, and the texture thickens, becoming more harmonically interesting as the idea comes to life.
The second section with the descent and low rumble of the bass represents our travel to Bangkok, hauling our instruments and suitcases, rushing around airports, etc. The third section is short, fast, and spinning around, like our jetlag as we arrive and get settled. Then the first theme returns again, but this time it’s stretched out and dramatic with lush chords and thickened octaves in the left hand. This represents the band finally performing in Bangkok.
After all three sections have been played the improvisation starts on the original chords of the A section, a wild freewheeling line that creates conversation between two hands. When the improvisation is over the 2nd and 3rd sections return, traveling back to DC, and eventually finishing with dramatic modulation and elongation of the original theme, just as the project successfully finished and we returned safely before the shutdown.
I am looking forward to adapting this piece for a larger ensemble after the pandemic, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my wonderful experiences in Thailand in 2020.
Arriving in Bangkok late into the night, or rather very very early in the morning there is not much to see or distinguish on the ride from the airport into the city. This is especially true with a mental state fogged by almost 24 hours of travel with little to no substantive sleep. The coming of morning however revealed the location and surroundings of our residence for the week. Though morning is perhaps a generous descriptor since in reality sleep was necessary until well past noon local time.
A walk out of the door, down the alley, and onto Sukhumvit 39. The path that led to the main drag of our part of town. The sleek buildings along Sukhumvit Road created a canyon filled with wide streets and narrow sidewalks. A towering two-level elevated train system and pedestrian walkway streaming down the center of the canyon cast a welcoming shadow in the bright tropical sun. This everyday trek off to the scheduled and improvised adventures always set the proper tone and ambiance required for a long days journey.
By the time the sun sets and the sky darkens, the lights of the city come alive and cast a calming glow on the streets and thoroughfares. Bustling people move through the cooling air in the markets, restaurants, and clubs. Along the smooth waters of the Chao Phraya the international language wafts above the commotion. Even half way around the world the music of jazz brings people together. It is instantly recognizable that we are all students of the same masters.
And late into the night it is time to make the journey down that increasingly familiar and reassuring path. Through town, down Sukhumvit, onto Sukhumvit 39 and towards our humble alley and abode.