Sitting in the blue room on the South Bank’s spirit level, British Jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh was full of energy despite the fact that it was a Sunday morning. Her deep purple satin dress and sparkly jewellery hinted at the personality that her beaming smile could not hide. Yeoh, who is of English and Malaysian descent, may be at home in South London but her charm and talent has taken her around the world, tinkling the ivories in Europe, India, Latin America, Cuba and Japan. Her influences are as diverse drawing upon hip-hop, funk, pop and classical music. But wherever and whatever Yeoh plays, it is on her terms.
Her love affair with music began in the pram when her mother, introduced her to reggae and Indian music. The carrier for Yeoh’s musical gene can be traced back to her maternal Grandfather, a clarinet player, who used to busk on the streets of London. Yeoh recalls that when her grandparents split up, her grandmother barred her grandfather from the house unless he put the money he had made busking through the door. Hence tales of coins though letterboxes have travelled through the generations.
With music in the blood, the musical penny dropped for Yeoh when she was three-years-old and first took to the piano. In the 32 years since, she has won countless awards including being named Best jazz musician of the year by the Independent newspaper in 1996. In 1999 she was a semi-finalist in the Montreux jazz piano competition.
Yet Yeoh remains humble, a quality that has permeated her career. She performed a gig at the Camden’s Jazz Café during Courtney Pine’s Christmas residency. Despite having had the audacity of youth to book the gig and secure coverage in the now defunct Straight No Chaser magazine, the Guardian and the Weekly Journal, when Pine took notice she was a little more hesitant to say “Here I am.”
Yeoh recalls: “Gary Crosby said if you want to join in be serious…my mates were elbowing me saying ‘go on have a go’. But I said I wasn’t ready. Trevor Watkiss was at the piano and Courtney looked over his glasses at me. I was scared thinking I was playing the wrong chords or that he thinks I’m rubbish. But he invited me to his dressing room and he said ‘where did you come from’?
Having thrown herself in at the deep end, three months later Yeoh was drenched in the music scene. Working with Pine led to an audition to work with Neneh Cherry, a trip to L.A. to work on the Arsenio Hall show, and work with DJ Pogo, Eddie Harris, Talvin Singh, DJ Afrika Islam, Jools Holland and Roy Ayers. She embraced all genres of music refusing to be pigeonholed.
Yeoh says: “On a journey every collaboration has significance and a unique influence. Courtney Pine is a big star and when he arrives at venues, internationally he is treated well so I got used to those standards when I toured with him. But they were not always there for me as a soloist! Musically the guys in my band Infinitum, Michael Mondesir and Keith le Blanc (of Sugar Hill fame), taught me by osmosis. Keith has a groove like a Swiss watch he is so in time, on a higher level, so I have to step up a gear. It’s like an exchange.”
It was time for a dramatic life swap in 2006 when Yeoh became a mother. Her son Rio almost died at birth. The joy of his survival motivated her to write River Spirit, a song dedicated to him and sent in prayer from Yeoh and her Nigerian partner, to thank God for saving their son. Oxford Contemporary Music commissioned the song, which was performed by The Choir of New College Oxford. Yeoh chose to set it to Japanese haiku form.
As a boisterous Rio plays with cars in the background with his older cousin, it is apparent that he must keep mum on her toes. Motherhood is one element to which Yeoh must capitulate. It has changed the speed at which she makes music. “It affected the process not the product, I’m slightly more sentimental. The motivation for writing has changed since being a mum. I have less time now to hang out and write – to be an artist. I can’t float; I have to be organised and creative. I have to be a disciplined writer, speed up the process to meet deadlines for a commission.”
The practicalities of motherhood mean that Yeoh can afford few diva demands in her creative writing space. She simply asks for a clean and tidy room, with “girly things like nice smells”, though she admits that through the creative process this quickly descends into mess with “coffee up the walls.”
Indeed caffeine has become crucial in sustaining the musician; at least that’s what she tells the mothers at playgroup. While Yeoh may dream of composing new ideas at a new piano away from home, in reality she works, preferably and most easily at night, while the washing machine is on the go downstairs, and Rio is asleep – constantly multitasking.
Teaching is another of Yeoh’s tasks. Working with children is clearly a passion with promoting reading music a particular concern. But Yeoh is also a big believer in learning by osmosis harking back to her earlier days in Infinitum. She insists that many of her pupils learn lots of staff by ear. “They don’t always have chords; lots of chords are not written down just passed on. My Yoga teacher said no one really wants to do yoga. If people had a choice between music and watching TV they would choose TV. Music is challenging.”
Yeoh’s indomitable spirit has a record of meeting challenges – an impressive list of commissioned works including the 1997 commission for Johanna MacGregor’s 'Piano Language' (Sound Circus); in 1998 working with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra for Scotland and later producing their album 'Quiet Freedom'. She adopts a simple philosophy to meet the demand whether writing for her trio or a choir. “I look for a piece of calm to let the idea come to me – to let me find my own ideas. I try and listen to what’s going on, it’s like a monastic experience. I’m reading this Christian book, which says you have to learn to accept the silence.”
Yeoh is commission driven. She has been commissioned to work with John Sermon in the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Her secret is to write specifically for him bearing in mind his tone rather than just any virtuoso saxophone player. For example her final piece will depend on which instruments Sermon brings from Norway, though to her disappointment, he does not plan to bring the range of instruments, which characterise his repertoire.
As someone who writes in odd time bars of five or six, capturing individuality is an important part of the process for Yeoh. Despite embracing change she maintains her identifiable voice saying, “I’ve always had own style you either love it or you hate it. I try not to write a pastiche, I write and play from the heart – following my musical instincts, based on my own experiences. I prefer commissions that stretch me – you evolve by default. I think if you search to evolve it feels contrived, just go with it.” Yeoh’s willingness to be open to improvisation and going with flow might be traced back to the fact that she is self taught having completed just a year of university. She insists that she has not needed a degree so far. But despite not having a classical background, most of the jazz she loves is classical – the likes of Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones, and Herbie Hancock.
A classical jazz background may have taken her career into another direction but her gut instinct hasn’t taken her far wrong. Yeoh recalls being invited to go on the road with hip-hop outfit The Roots in 1994 before they achieved acclaim. While it was a big opportunity, she felt it was not creatively beneficial to “just play a couple of chords.” Prepared to take a risk on decisions, Yeoh is a realist about the extent to which she can realise the vision for her career. “In an ideal world I’d be recording albums all the time with great child care. I think, not because it’s jazz but because of politics, the structure of the business…some get more opportunities than others. It’s not always about quality... Not everyone can do what they want to do.”
< In between bites of her sandwich, Yeoh would not be drawn further on the “politics” of the business though she did reveal her fears about the danger TV shows such as the X Factor, which may encourage more people to take singing lessons, but also promote carbon copy celebrity culture. Yeoh was a judge on a similar project with the Disney Channel aimed at ten and eleven-year-olds. A self-confessed socialist, she was keen to reinvest in the grassroots and insisted that all participants received information packs on music lessons in their area. These never materialised.
Yeoh feels it is critical to encourage young people and that the industry is representative of society. While she remains optimistic about the health of the British jazz scene, she worries that people in general are not exposed enough to jazz through the media. Though it may take time for the structure of the jazz industry to change, original voices such as Yeoh’s will continue to be heard as long as she keeps showing us all how to amplify.
Report - Fiona McKinson