Despite the closure of the capital’s only jazz club last year, Phnom Penh musicians believe that the genre has a future in Cambodia. Ellie Dyer meets the jazz aficionados of trio GTS to hear more. Photography by Dylan Walker.
With its syncopated rhythms and swinging exuberance, jazz has enthralled generations of listeners since its birth in the United States in the early 20th century.
Now the musical style is shaking up Cambodia. Amongst Phnom Penh’s expat population there is a small group of trained musicians who are bringing the genre to Southeast Asia and pushing boundaries along the way.
At its heart lies Italian pianist Gabriele Faja, French drummer Toma Willen and double bass player Sebastien Adnot whose newly-formed jazz trio GTS has won regular gigs at Sofitel and K-West Brasserie and Bar.
The professional musicians, billed as the only outfit in town to play soley pure jazz, met while performing in the Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra and formed their own group in October.
Using their impressive improvisational skills, the friends played their first gig at K-West. Their talent paid off.
“We got a lot of good feedback,” says 32-year-old Faja, whose love of jazz began 10 years ago when he listened to a Keith Jarrett album while studying at London’s highly-respected Royal College of Music.
Despite a minor setback when their double bassist broke his fingers in a motorbike crash, the band has gone from strength to strength to play across town, interpreting the work of jazz greats Van Heusen, Cole Porter, Jobim, Bonfa and Billy Strayhorn.
Billed as a collective, the trio – whose instruments form the fundamental building blocks of jazz – have been joined in performances by saxophonists, singers and trumpet players.
Six musicians came together as an ensemble on Mar. 31 at Le Jardin as part of an ambitious project to perform the whole of Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 album Kind of Blue.
“To be a musician here is very exciting, because it’s new,” says Willen, who came to Cambodia over a year ago to play in the house band of the now-shuttered Studio 182 jazz club.
“We don’t take something [from Cambodians] – we are bringing something to them.”
Experimentation is also underway. Faja is in the process of putting a jazz twist on Cambodian tunes including classics penned by King Father Norodom Sihanouk and modern pop ditties – such as those of starlet Sok Pisey.
“We are interested in making it [our music] more adaptable to Cambodians while bringing jazz to their ears,” says Faja, who is also exploring classical compositions by Ravel and Christina Aguilera’s album Back to Basics.
Both players also teach music and are introducing jazz to the next generation of Asian musicians.
For Faja, the opportunity for his students to watch him perform on stage shows them “why we are doing this”.
“I think Phnom Penh is going to be quite an artistic community, more so than Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Small is good,” says Faja.
Willen, who trained as a jazz musician at the Conservatoire de Musique in France’s St Etienne and has played throughout Europe, is also keen to acquaint youngsters with another genre of Western culture: The Blues.
“For them [it] is a basic first step; a window into alternative music. They love it,” he says.
For classically-trained Faja, playing jazz professionally marks the culmination of a personal journey that began when he fell in love with the music a decade ago. “It’s now time to live my dream,” he says.
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