The highs, lows and notable mentions of Sing Jazz 2018 – festival report

The highs, lows and notable mentions of Sing Jazz 2018 – festival report

The fifth iteration of the annual Singapore International Jazz Festival took to the Marina Bay Sands from 6-8 April for a weekend of beats, booze, and boogies.

With stellar artists filling the lineup for the event’s fifth anniversary, the rain tried but couldn’t dampen the mood at the MBS Event Plaza. Here's our report of what happened at Sing Jazz 2018, delving into the great, the notable, and what we think could have been improved.

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Highs

Strong talent on the Main Stage

There was some great programming on the Main Stage on all three days of Sing Jazz. Consummate showman Jamie Cullum and electro-swing pioneers Parov Stelar got the crowds up and moving, while Leee John and Omar helped longtime friends of the festival Incognito end Sing Jazz 2018 with a bang.

But the Main Stage musician we remember the most fondly has to be Lalah Hathaway, who was totally unflappable even amidst the uncomfortable humidity, which she commented on to the crowd. Her luxuriant voice, precise diction, and incredible scat-singing were something to remember.


Estelle

One of our most anticipated acts on this year’s Sing Jazz lineup, the goddess Estelle headlined Friday night’s Late Show. Immortalised in the history of music with her unforgettable collaboration with Kanye West on the 10-year-old song (I know, right?) ’American Boy’, Estelle’s inclusion on Friday night’s lineup was, in our opinion, the saving grace for that evening’s agenda.

Though we were somewhat frustrated that the she was only scheduled to come on at 12:30am, it was well worth the wait. Estelle’s two backup singers, Raii and Whitney, each of whom are vocal powerhouses in their own right, got the crowd going with reggae to prepare us for their star. When she finally graced the stage, glamorously dressed head-to-toe in gold, the Grammy Award-winning singer continued the reggae vibes by beginning her set with new material in the genre.

Giving us a preview of her upcoming album, Estelle showed that even 10 years on from what was arguably her biggest hit, she is in no way still leaning on the sound that initially brought her fame. Covering jazz legends like Anita Baker and Ella Fitzgerald as well, Estelle’s charm and propensity to swear like a sailor helped her get a somewhat reserved crowd going.

It wasn’t until the long-awaited performance of ‘American Boy’, though, that the audience really let loose. Playing Kanye’s verse on the big screen to tease us for what was to come, Estelle’s performance made it obvious that no matter how many times she’s sung it, she still has a blast doing so. Swiftly following that with her earlier singles ‘I Can Be a Freak’ and ‘One Love’, we were transported to the heyday of early noughties dance music and appropriately danced our butts off.

The crowd’s response to such performances seemed to stir something in Estelle, and she affectionately thanked the audience for supporting her and for sharing the love she was showered with that night. It was a touching address; a reminder that music performances are so much more than what we can capture for the ‘gram. It’s a thought that stuck with us throughout the whole festival, and we have Estelle – the golden goddess – to thank for that.


Ms. Lauryn Hill

We’re going to be honest – once our euphoria over Ms. Lauryn Hill’s announcement as the Sing Jazz headliner had subsided, what replaced it was anticipation tinged by anxiety. Ms. Hill’s reputation for showing up hours late and even cancelling outright at the last minute precedes her, and we weren’t sure how her appearance at Sing Jazz would go.

Luckily, all those fears were in this instance unfounded. After a 30-minute warm-up set by her touring DJ DJ Rampage (who spun some Sean Paul, lots of Kendrick Lamar and a tiny bit of Cardi B), Ms. Hill took to the stage promptly, resplendent in a huge floppy hat and a Balenciaga dress with Benjamins printed all over the blouse. “Salam semua,” she greeted Sing Jazz, smiling. We all knew then that it was going to be a wonderful night.

Running through a varied setlist that comprised Fugees hits, cuts off The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and even songs by Bob Marley (whose son Rohan was Ms. Hill’s longtime partner), Ms. Hill was in her element. But it soon became clear that the sound onstage was not up to her standards. She fiddled with her monitors, often looking sidestage and pointing at her amplifiers, irritably making a sweeping gesture upwards that signalled “All of them, louder!” She also held a small hand towel, which she used to dry her sweat but often clasped to her mouth, making us wonder if she was ill.

If she did, it didn’t show in her voice, or in her impeccable command of her band, to whom Ms. Hill was leader and conductor. She ran a tight ship, with her band members often keeping their eyes trained on her for signals. She often scrunched up her face in concentration as she did her vocal runs; considering that Ms. Hill has been making music and touring for more than two decades, the occasional raggedness of her voice was forgivable, and the fact that she rarely sounded out of key or pitch was incredible.

There were many moments of magic during her set: ‘Ready Or Not’ and ‘Fugee La’ came back to back, which we were not ready for; ‘To Zion’, which was accompanied by some photos of her and her son, was spine-tingling; and Ms. Hill’s energy resurged with the beloved ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’, the very last song of the night. At Sing Jazz, Ms. Lauryn Hill showed Singapore how a living legend does it. That’s not something you easily forget.


Notable Mentions

Sébastien Tellier

Perhaps the most charismatic of all the acts we saw at Sing Jazz, Sébastien Tellier simultaneously made the crowd laugh and feel uncomfortable with his quirky quips and general I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.

Playing to the sizeable French assemblage in the crowd, Tellier was especially audacious onstage. Of particular note: his remark that he had taken acid right before he took to the stage (we’re still not quite sure whether this was true), and his exaggerated kowtowing to his plastic cup of champagne.


Singaporean artists

Obviously, the Sing Jazz lineup was dominated by international acts, but that’s not to say there is no room for local talent at all. Weish and Tim De Cotta knocked it out of the park, while jazz impresario Jeremy Monteiro led the Jazz Association SG Orchestra for a rousing open of the festival’s last day. MAS1A, too, had to contend with a mostly diffident crowd, but she gave it her all and pulled off one of the most impressive sets by a Singaporean that weekend.

This year, Sing Jazz also introduced the Festival Village that showcased local and regional acts. This was an admirable move, but amidst tight programming, it was difficult to pop out of the festival grounds and make the walk to the Village, which was situated further away than expected – we’re not sure how much shine these artists got at all, over the whole weekend.


Tributes and homages

One of the great, freeing things about Sing Jazz for an artist is that the audience will appreciate a good homage to a legend via a cover rendition. And another great thing about Sing Jazz is that more often than not the talent steps up to the plate. 

Great covers abounded at Sing Jazz, from Weish’s takes on ‘Thriller’ and ‘Cry Me A River’ to Estelle’s gorgeous tribute to Anita Baker and the segment of Lalah Hathaway’s set she dedicated to her father Donny Hathaway. And from the way his songs were covered by Estelle, Lauryn Hill and Incognito (who closed out the festival with ‘One Love’), reggae king Bob Marley was clearly at Sing Jazz 2018 in spirit.


A new venue for the Late Show

The second year that Sing Jazz has held The Late Show at Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre, we do feel it’s worth positively mentioning the transition from an outdoor to an indoor venue, a welcome respite from the humidity of our urban jungle.

Though we still find the Expo & Convention Centre perhaps a tad too large, and the set up a bit confusing with VIP attendees sectioned off to the far sides of the venue, the air conditioned space definitely helped create a more apt club atmosphere for The Late Show, and allows for everyone to really (and literally) let their hair loose for the night’s proceedings.


Simon Bartholomew of the Brand New Heavies

If Robert Plant and Mick Jagger had a love child, it would be Simon Bartholomew, guitarist of the Brand New Heavies. Fabulously dressed in a red sequined shirt, a diamante necklace, and a feather earring, we’re mentioning him because during Incognito’s set he was in the crowd, danced with us, took a sip of our drink, and was just a whole lot of fun.


Lows

The bass at the Late Show

Thunderous to the point of being almost deafening, the bass at the Late Show was something we couldn’t get our ears around all weekend. (The Main Stage was also pretty loud, but the effect was painfully noticeable at the Late Show.)

And it wasn’t just those of us in the front row who experienced head-splitting bass; moving further away from the stage did little to counter the obtrusive electronic thump emanating from the speakers. Ear plugs, which were our saving grace, helped somewhat, but we were perhaps 0.01% of attendees who had them on hand to protect our ears from the violence of the bass.

On that note, a public service announcement to all parents and organisers of future festivals where children might also be part of the audience: please bring or provide plugs to protect their innocent ears from the risk of tinnitus. 


Soul II Soul

There’s old music that brings out the #feels and induces feelings of warm nostalgia (think Buena Vista Social Club at Sing Jazz 2016), then there’s music that just feels dated. Unfortunately, Soul II Soul’s set felt more like the latter, though that probably had more to do with the scheduling of sets as opposed to Soul II Soul themselves.

The act right before Estelle, Soul II Soul’s sprawling sound didn’t do much to get us pumped for what was to come next. Their music and appeal to an older generation makes us think they would’ve been better suited to the Main Stage as opposed to the 11pm Late Show timing they had, so it’s a shame that what could’ve been a fine set fell flat due to shortcomings in scheduling.


Ticket prices

Perhaps one of our biggest discontents with this year’s show was the decision to significantly increase ticket prices. Full weekend passes for access to the Main Stage and The Late Show went for a whopping $488 (!!!), compared to last year’s $288 for the same category of tickets.

And we’re only referring to General Admission here; a ticket for the Champagne Terrace was $288 per day, and a VIP day ticket would’ve cost you $328, with these price tags giving you access to the Main Stage only. Late Show VIP tickets came in table bundles that ranged from $1,488 – $9,888, and the “Full Festival Hospitality” package had a hefty $50,000 gold-plated price tag (yeah, we’re just going to let that sit for a second).

We understand that the festival and gig market in Singapore is saturated, and that the organisers of Sing Jazz were probably attempting to target a different kind of clientele (read: those of higher SES. Let’s be honest here). Yet, the absence of fresher, more experimental artists who represent the future of jazz music from this year’s lineup made the considerable increase all the more painful, and in our opinion, excessive.


Heard at Sing Jazz

“I love champagne. Even if it is warm, flat, and in a plastic cup.” – Sébastien Tellier

“Do y'all have Christian Mingle over here?” – Lalah Hathaway

“Lauryn Hill’s on in about 30 minutes.” – Dude in the audience
“Who’s that?” – His female companion who had elbowed her way to the front before her set

“Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white!” – DJ Rampage
“Dude, what if they’re Asian?” – Guy in the audience

“Singapore, let’s have an agreement where I come back every year. We’re very, very cheap; we don’t have stylists to groom our hair, we don’t even have stylists to comb our beards.” – Jamie Cullum

“Weish, of the bands sub:shaman and gift.” – Emcee, while introducing Weish and attempting to pronounce .gif

Mas–see–ah.” – Emcee, while introducing MAS1A (it’s pronounced May-sha, if you were wondering).


Special thanks to Sing Jazz for the invite.