Julian Chan: A simple love for playing

Julian Chan is a distinguished saxophonist. His CV reads like a primer for a budding musician learning the ropes. But despite the experience and wisdom he has accumulated the last 25 years of playing, his saxophone journey was anything but conventional.

“I fell in love with the sax and wanted to play it after listening to Dave Koz‘s first album. I just got hooked to his alto sax sound. I remember that I started playing around 1991.” I took a moment to process the time; it surprised and amazed me in equal measure. My maths arrived at the number 13. “Yeah, I was about 13-14 years old. My first sax was a second hand one I bought from Woh Fatt. I mostly played for fun and towards the end of high school I felt like wanted to play live. Eventually I my first live gig at my dad’s rotary club performance. I just loved the feeling of playing live.”

Julian is currently preparing for the Johor Bharu Classical Music Festival (JBCMF) 2017 that will take place this weekend. He is the saxophone soloist alongside Misa Yamamoto and her piano for Jazz Up – Rhapsody in Blue, a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra Wind Ensemble. He was gracious enough to spare an hour just before a scheduled rehearsal for a quick interview.

Why Koz, I asked. He flashed an immediate grin that set the tone for the rest of the interview. “Because I love his approach and the concept of his sound.” Predictably I asked further – Kenny G or Dave Koz? “Koz – his songs are more challenging to play. They both play the same pop-ish style, but Kenny plays the Grover Washington Jr smooth jazz kind of music with longish, breathy notes while Dave had the more Oakland funk sound – edgier and more rhythmic.”

After high school, Julian studied business A-Levels for a year and a half before completing an accounting degree at Curtin University, Western Australia. He returned home in mid-2000 & started playing seriously since 2001. He went for lessons practically every week with Greg Lyons for 4 years. It was around this time that he started performing regularly – doing small gigs at hotels and lounges. This was the entry point for his music career and education. Over time he eventually made the step up, playing in Greg Lyons’ ensemble and other corporate gigs.

Via Greg Lyons, Julian started getting around in the KL jazz music circuit, eventually rubbing shoulders with local jazz luminaries such as Michael Veerapen and Lewis Pragasam, and playing alongside them. He also got around to setting up his own band. And this period of activity in the jazz circuit opened other doors – his diligence got him gigs with huge local popstars like Ning Baizura, Dayang Nurfaezah and the queen of jazz herself Sheila Majid. He even played with Siti Nurhaliza once. It was around this time he hit a major milestone – recording with Fairuz Hussein on her album.


Speaking about milestones, I wondered if that was Julian’s big break. His answer was refreshing. “I don’t believe in what the musicians call that one big break; it’s a misconception. I mean, fame is not bad, but it’s very fleeting. What goes on when the fame isn’t there is the most important thing – (music) education, the desire to improve and the long hours of consistently working on your craft.”

“For me, life is not really about getting that one big break. I’ve had many little breaks throughout the years. It’s not just about the playing, but it’s also about how I connect with people & vice versa – how we click, what’s your working attitude and all. All the professional stuff. Time and time again I’ve found that I rather work with younger musicians with good attitude. They may not be as good as some of available talent at the time, but some of these talent, due to their attitude, become problematic instead.”

“It’s a continuum; I am like a nut or bolt in the cog of the machinery. We’re all part of a continuum. If I stop, I’ll interrupt the continuum. So I don’t think so much about the big break thing. I just keep on playing and do my part.”

Speaking about big breaks, Rhapsody in Blue is Julian’s first time being selected as a featured soloist in a classical music orchestra. Given his less than conventional entry into music, it represents a huge milestone. “It’s big; it’s an ‘Oh wow.’ moment.’ As a jazz saxophonist, this is a great opportunity, and more importantly, distinction. But this isn’t the first time I am playing classical. I have previously heard and played other classical stuff, but yeah it is my first time soloing.”

So the preparation must have been tough. “Yes, it was challenging. Branford Marsalis is big inspiration for this gig. He is someone that has put his foot in both the jazz and classical scene.” Is there a difference? “There is no difference. As a musician I need to know all these music, and musicians. I have to learn the history of the saxophone – pioneers, music, evolution and all because there is no way I can dream of playing a concert like this without knowing how they sounded like. I also face the challenge of the classical vs jazz saxophone sound – I had to learn how to sound less like a jazz saxophonist and adjust my tendencies and habits to sound classical.”

The legendary Branford Marsalis.
The legendary Branford Marsalis.

“When one understands the musical spectrum of the sax, then you can focus better on what you’re playing. I’m doing that now – listening to classical stuff. It is an interesting challenge; but I have to do it. This will be a part of my playing future.”

It’s not hard to conclude that Julian is self-aware. He always speaks with a sense of place and time, if not belonging. Despite not being classically trained, his sheer love for playing shines through. This is evident every time he brings up his formative years with the likes of Michael Veerapen, Mac Chew and Jenny Chin, enthusing about their contributions to the music scene and the gigs he’s played in over the years. So how did Rhapsody in Blue happen?

“Oh! It’s a funny, simple story. Around 5 to 6 months ago I accompanied one of my friends from the NSO Wind Ensemble who was meeting Misa Yamamoto. During the conversation he turned to me and asked ‘Eh, you want to play ah?’ I thought about it for a few seconds and said yes. That was how I ended up playing for this Friday night.” We both laughed.

Is classical music relevant, I asked. His answer, like his own musical journey, was less than conventional. “What is relevance?” he asked in return.

“Talking about how classical music is relevant is something I don’t really indulge in; it’s better to just go with the flow. Relevance is all about affect – being affected by something, or affecting your surroundings. It’s about impact. That’s what music has always been. So as long as music can still affect, be it via performance or musicianship or composition, it will always be relevant. We are still listening and playing music that are at least half a century old, so the question is pointless. It has always been a positive experience, and that affects change; from an individual to the society. And that will always make music relevant.”

"In music you just have to go with it. Go up there, and have fun." Julian Chan
“In music you just have to go with it. Go up there, and have fun.” Julian Chan

From Koz to Marsalis, Rotary Club events to featured soloist for a classical music ensemble, Julian’s diligence is only outshined by his simple love for playing. Like how he was inspired by the musicians of his youth, and driven further by the musicians that gave him his first gigs during his formative years, he hopes he’s doing his bit in Malaysia musical continuum to ensure that he is paying it forward. “Every stage I’ve been on has opened some kind of doors for me. In music you just have to go with it. Go up there, have fun and not screw up.”

So is he ready to perform for the Johor Bharu Classical Music Festival? “I’m nervous, but I’m prepared. It’s a huge deal for me, but I think I’m gonna enjoy it, and I hope the audience can feel it too.”

Something tells me so will I.

This article is written conjunction with the upcoming 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. Presented by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) with the theme “In Sync”, the festival aims to explore classical music’s universality and emphasize its relevance as an avenue for storytelling. Enjoy a fine selection of inspiring local and international performances and classes from 27th – 29th July. Find out more from JBIFC.

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