In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote: “If music be the food of love, play on.” For those who like their food of love with a strong jazzy flavour, then Lit Books in Petaling Jaya has just the thing for you.
At its WVC Live: Give Thy Ear event on Mar 5 and 6, an acclaimed jazz group joins forces with two performing arts regulars to present the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry, translated into jazz music.
Expect an intimate session of original compositions and improvisation by the WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble, with tenor Aaron Teoh lending his vocals, as well as stage actor Lim Soon Heng providing narration. And all this happens in a bookshop.
WVC is led by by composer/pianist Tay Cher Siang, with AJ Popshuvit on bass, KJ Wong on drums, and Julian Chan on saxophone.
“To be given the opportunity to perform Hamlet’s proverbial soliloquy To Be Or Not To Be over Julian’s wailing saxophone in a Tay Cher Siang composition is to die for,” says Lim, a veteran performer and member of The KL Shakespeare Players.
The music will mostly be lifted from WVC’s sixth album Give Thy Ear, released in September 2018. It contains music inspired by Shakespeare. There will also be a rendition of Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, a piece Ellington co-wrote in 1957 based on a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
WVC originally stood for West Virginia Connection, as Tay started his band while studying in West Virginia University in the United States, with two of his course mates. Upon his return to Malaysia, Tay recruited new band members and retained the name.
“Jazz is a flexible art form that can be a vehicle to address different thoughts and ideas. It is definitely possible to interpret and re-imagine Shakespeare’s stories and words from 400 years ago into today’s context via jazz expressions,” says Tay, who has led the band since 2006.
They have toured extensively, including clubs shows in New York, a trek through China, and several dates in the region. In 2018, WVC even found itself as a musical extra in a party scene in Crazy Rich Asians.
But Tay is more interested in furthering WVC’s jazz outreach. It recently performed at the DPAC Spring Festival. But be it the big stage or indie bookshop, WVC is not a group to take things lightly. “A gig is a gig. People have come to watch you and you have to give your best,” says Tay.
In creating the songs for Give Thy Ear, Tay spent months reciting Shakespeare’s verses and listening to actors performing them, trying to get the ebb and flow of the words, the ideas and the rhythm.
“I also took the liberty of re-imagining Shakespeare’s scenes into a modern context. For instance, Lady Macbeth’s summoning the devil … how would that sound in a video game?” he adds.
“This combination of Shakespeare and jazz is done in our own unique way, we improvised, we deliberated. It’s a homage to the creativity of the Bard through jazz.”
Tay hopes jazz fans and Shakespeare lovers will find something to relate to in this gig. The idea of Lim narrating classic verses and Teoh singing gives the performance a unique yet accessible storytelling reach.
“What’s not to like about Shakespeare? Most people who fear the Bard were poorly or wrongly introduced to him, his language and his plays. In any case, this is an evening of music and by one of the best jazz ensembles anywhere. The marriage of these two cannot admit impediments,” says Lim.
This will also be the last show in Malaysia (for now) for Teoh before he heads off to play Prince Chulalongkorn in the UK touring production of The King And I, which starts in April. In this WVC show, Teoh will do an excerpt from Twelfth Night as well as a performance of Sonnet 18.
“Cher Siang’s compositions have made the transition from page to stage very smooth and accessible … not only for audience members but for myself as well. Most people’s reaction to Shakespeare is that it might be too wordy or difficult to understand. But the music really goes right into the heart of Shakespeare’s sonnets,” says Teoh.