Sun, 06 Jul 2003

Nial puts his heart and soul into jazz music

So, define jazz, Nial. Nial Djuliarso straightened his back, while his fingers played aimlessly with a green straw.

"Jazz is freedom of expression," said the 22-year-old jazz pianist firmly.

Well, isn't rock about freedom of expression, too? He hesitated a moment.

"True, but jazz has more substance. Well, rock also has substance, but jazz ... (pause) gives.. It's good for the brain because the music requires extra thinking. It's good for the heart, soul, body and mind," he said.

"It happens in other genre too, but jazz is more intense and visible in terms of musicians' interplay. Especially when you play live ... The energy is like, wow!"

The student of Boston's Berklee College of Music spoke in the enamored tones of a teenage boy prattling on about Britney Spears, his face glowing with passion.

He still resembles an adolescent, with his self-admittedly "nerdy" look: Glasses, pale skin, skinny, dressed in a Walt Disney dinosaur T-shirt and sneakers.

But Nial has the composure and determination of an adult. And while he is confident, for sure, he never comes across as arrogant, not bothering to trash pop music or sniping that the music of Kenny G or Norah Jones is not jazz.

"They're jazz, only lighter. That's good too," he said.

And while his peers are stuck in their Holden Caulfield moments, Nial is soldiering on along on a career path rarely chosen by Indonesian musicians.

The journey dates back to when he learned how to play the piano at the tender age of three, and grew up watching his father play the bass and altosaxophone in jazz clubs all over Jakarta.

The real turning point, however, was watching a performance of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny at Senayan Sports Stadium in 1996.

"The jazz bug hit me that night! It really touched my heart. I was so impressed by the improvisation, the sense of freedom and the expression," he said.

That was when he decided to do what his engineer father did not by pursuing a life of music.

"He's the most talented among my children. I love playing jazz, but my parents didn't let me have a career in it. So, when Nial said that he wanted to become a professional jazz musician, I fully supported him," Nial's father Pudjo Djuliarso said.

Pudjo then sent his second child, 15 years old at the time and a budding tennis player ("I got too tired"), to the home of jazz in the United States.

After spending his high school years in Tennessee, Nial later earned a full scholarship at Berklee, where he first took a major in jazz arrangement and production but switched to jazz performance last year.

"It turned out I prefer performing to doing the behind-the- stage thing. Performing is more fun. We can directly express ourselves," said Nial, who admires the likes of Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Oscar Peterson.

Living in the U.S. helped nurture his talent and experience. He performed at the Sarasota Jazz Festival in Florida, and at the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands with his own Nial Djuliarso trio. In 2001 and 2002, he won the Hilton Head Jazz Society Scholarship Competition in South Carolina.

Last year, Nial was one of an elite group of 28 young musicians from around the world accepted by Jazz Ahead, a week- long jazz residency program which was initiated in 1993 by premiere jazz vocalist, the late Betty Carter.

The residency program, held at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., is a a venue to pass on the jazz tradition by bringing together young emerging artists with experienced performers.

During his school holidays recently, he played several gigs in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta.

After graduating next year, Nial plans to move to New York to work and continue his studies.

"I want to sharpen my skills. When I get what I want and am satisfied with what I'm doing, then I'm going to be back. I was born here. There are some wishes to develop the jazz scene in this country," Nial said.

He added that except for noted jazz player Bubi Chen, there is no Indonesian who plays pure jazz.

"I don't know why. People here mostly play smooth jazz, which is not bad if it's played well.. Like Herbie Hancock, he is a crossover, a versatile musician. He also plays smooth jazz."

Nial hopes more people take up jazz in this country so that there would be rhythm sections when he returned home.

"I'm usually accompanied by bass and drum, because musicians here are not used to playing jazz that I like to play, which is swing jazz. The interplay in swing is more than the kind of jazz that is ting-ting-ting-ting...

"Everyone can do that ting-ting-ting-ting. But swing is more difficult, we have to be really focused," he said.

He criticized musicians who build up their own ivory towers and alienate the audience.

"I guess that's the wrong attitude, because we need an audience as they buy the tickets. We have to balance the music and the audience. Maybe sometimes we have to compromise a little. But I guess if the music is good, we hope that the audience will feel it."

Do you listen to pop, Nial? MTV?

"Not really. But I know Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake. I don't really listen to them, though, so I can't really comment on them. But I guess musicians nowadays have to be versatile and open minded if they want to survive. If I had an offer to play pop or funk, as long as there's no other offer (for jazz), I'd take it.

"Because I believe that there's something that we can take from other styles, which can be combined with what we've learned. That'd be good."

And so there Nial was, on stage at a cafe in Central Jakarta, looking neat in a long-sleeved shirt, pants and loafers. His father stood against the wall, watching, although many chairs were still available in the audience.

Occasionally, Pudjo's cheers and excited clapping sounded through the audience's polite applause. He also got on stage to make sure the piano was finely tuned.

Through all his prowess at the complicated compositions, it was Nial's unrestrained passion that showed through.

Nial Djuliarso will perform at Erasmus Huis, Jl. Rasuna Said, Kuningan, South Jakarta, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday.