How do you feel about turning 50?
Before I turned 50, I always thought that I’d feel differently, but when I woke up on the day of my birthday, I felt exactly as I did the day before. I think the turning point of my life was when I turned 35. Many things changed; it felt like that the youthful vigour was down a notch when I turned 35. It was also when my attitudes towards life and people changed, such as becoming more mindful and sensitive about their feelings. Before that, my ego tended to get in the way and I may have unintentionally hurt some people.
With such an impressive list of achievements, including being awarded the Cultural Medallion, what are the most proud of having accomplished?
I am very grateful and humbled when I receive such awards but they’ve cease to become the impetus for me to do my work. The desire to produce the best music that I can produce has become my sole driving force. For any musician, I think, this should be the main motivation, rather than the pursuit of the celebrity lifestyle. The limelight can be an asset and a liability, because I consider myself to be quite a private person, so I usually try to think of it as being just a byproduct of my work.
You’ve gained critical acclaim in the US and the UK, but unlike many Singaporean artistes who’ve made it big overseas, you still choose Singapore as your base. What’s the reason for this?
I am not averse to living short periods of time overseas. In fact I’ve lived in Bangkok for quite a bit over the last few years, playing there regularly. I feel that the world is my stage but Singapore is my home. It’s very important because there’s always someone from New York who can contribute to New York, but in Singapore we have a shortage of talents and I think this is where I can really contribute.
How has the jazz scene in Singapore changed since you started playing professionally in 1977?
The levels of musicianship has certainly gone up tremendously. People like Andrew Lim, who plays guitar in my band Organamix, my sister Clarissa and Rani Singam put a lot of work and catharsis into their craft and have yielded some really good results. And the best thing is they produce good music from a very young age for its own sake, whereas for me, I think I was caught up in wanting to be a part of the scene, and being propelled by extrinsic motivators like that.
Who, or what is your biggest inspiration?
I’m inspired by people in general. I love observing their joy and suffering. For example, one of my songs, Life Goes On, is about what happens when someone loses a person close to them and the various stages of grief that he or she goes through. Having also lived in many places has also been inspiring.
Ernie Watts has been a long-time collaborator, how does it feel to be performing with him again here in Singapore?
When I listen to some of the records we made together when I was younger, I sometimes think, “Why did he even play with me?” I no longer feel inadequate now after 22 years. He started being my hero, then he become a mentor and is now a close friend and it’s wonderful to be able to perform with him here again after our performance together here in the 1980s.
You were awarded the ‘Lifting Up The World With A Oneness-Heart’ lifetime achievement award and previous recipients of this award include Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. How does it feel to be in such esteemed company?
When that happened, I remember telling my friend, “I don’t even deserve to be tying Nelson Mandela’s shoelaces. What am I doing receiving this award?” Then my friend said, “Well, neither Mandela or Mother Teresa can play C7 sharp 13th chord like you, and that’s what you’re getting the award for.”
Have you ever had any artistic blocks and how did you get over it?
Yes, I have had writer’s block. This tends to happen because I have too much to do, besides performing, I also have to run my own business. And when you don’t have time to be quiet, that’s when the block happens because silence is the wellspring of creativity. When you don’t have periods of silence, you can’t extract from that wellspring.
What can we expect from your performance with Organamix and Ernie Watts at The Arts House?
We will be playing a selection of originals and other jazz standards, and you can expect a lot of fun and improvisation too!
Catch Jeremy Monteiro perform with Ernie Watts and his organ trio Organamix as part of the annual Jazz@The Arts House series.