Raised in multi-cultural Singapore and a musical family, Rit Xu is an award winning jazz flutist, composer, educator and bandleader, who has gained international recognition for his lyrical, thoughtful and introspective musical voice on the flute.
As an alumni of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art’s School of Young Talents, and subsequently, a recent graduate in classical flute performance from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (NUS), Rit has been involved in many diverse projects abroad.
From debuting in 2015 with the Swiss Youth World Music Ensemble, and he went on to win a spot in the prestigious 26-piece Asian Youth Jazz Orchestra led by great Japanese trombonist and conductor, Osamu Matsumoto. He also played all flute solos in the soundtrack of Taiwanese epic movie, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, which won the 48th Golden Horse Award for best original film score.
Back home, Rit is a key member of Jeremy Monteiro’s Jazz Brasileiro, the Greg Lyons Quintet and his 10-piece modern jazz outlet Omniform, the Lorong Boys, amongst many others.
Rit plays on Powell and Weissenberg flutes.
The Band Post speaks to Rit as a jazz musician, on his personal life, career advices and opinions about the Singapore jazz scene.
This article is part 2 of Rit’s interview. Click here for part 1.
Most people would think of the saxophone or trumpet in a jazz setting, rather than the flute. Do you often find it harder to achieve the sounds that these instruments produce in jazz music? Is it also relatively difficult to find music for flute in jazz music?
If “the sounds” refer to notes, then it is not a problem at all; we are all basically creating “sound” from the same 12-notes of the tempered scale, which was scientifically devised and handed down to us more than four or five centuries ago. Also, the Boehm flute shares the same fingering system as saxophones and clarinets, so we are able to execute all 12-notes of the chromatic scale easily. Brass instruments have their own systems but it is also designed to play chromatically without too much effort.
What I often find challenging about playing flute in jazz (my esteemed colleagues in jazz flute from all over the world would agree to this) is the issue of amplification; the flute can be easily drowned out by other instruments. Compared to how it was more than half a century ago, things are definitely not as bad now. However, with the advent of microphones, the challenge for the aspiring jazz flutist is what I call “the art of playing with microphones.”
For me, the microphone is like an instrument itself, and certain aspects of approaching the tonal qualities of your instrument should be different when you are using it. However, this is never taught in music schools––perhaps never will––but I do hope that the aspiring jazz flutist spends some time to investigate and experiment playing with microphones.
I would say that the Great American Songbook loosely forms the core repertoire for any jazz musician regardless of what instrument he/she plays. Unlike the classical tradition where every note, instrumentation and performance directions are set in stone by a composer, jazz and popular music utilizes a notation system known as the lead sheet where only the essential elements of a tune are notated — form, melody and harmony. Your interpretation of the lead sheets is largely shaped and influenced by your personal listening experience of jazz––I cannot stress enough how important this is!
What suggestions do you have for an instrumentalist who wants to play jazz? Where should he or she start?
I have three suggestions for anyone from basic to advance instrumentalists wanting to play jazz;
- Level up your music hearing skills and make it a meaningful process for yourself; sharpen your ability to hear and identify any note(s), intervals, triads, chords structures and melodic phrases. I know of many colleagues who are able to do that at lighting speed but still they falters when it comes to real-time improvisation. Moral of the story: hearing something and being able to identify it quickly is one thing, but you need to internalize and integrate that musical information into “your own” in order for it to even have the slightest chance of presenting itself during real-time improvisations.
- Learn to visualize chord symbols and chord progressions, and then hear/sing/play the sound associated with it. The “sound” can be –– chords tones; a particular scale or scales over the chord; or perhaps a simple piece of jazz language over a ii-V chord progression. There is a succinctly written article on what the jazz language is: How To Speak The Jazz Language
- Listen to jazz! Simple advice––but easily one of the most neglected of all. Case in point: I have Singaporean students who are able to speak the Korean language quite fluently–-or at best imitate pretty decently––and they did not take language class or read books about it. How do they that? Because they watch Korean dramas on TV everyday––yes, everyday. Boy, do I wish that they channel the same amount of intense effort into listening to jazz. It is impossible to become a good jazz musician without a target –– you need to begin with a goal in your mind by having the “jazz sound” imprinted in your ears. If there is one thing that you can do daily to level up your jazz playing skills, it is to listen to jazz––and make sure you do it everyday.
What do you think of the jazz scene in Singapore?
At the moment, we have a small but vibrant and visible jazz scene in Singapore.
This year alone, B28 revived its operation at Ann Siang Hill and the new Montreux Jazz Cafe at Pan Pacific Orchard opened its doors in October. The other regular venues such as Singjazz Club and Blu Jaz Cafe also feature a wide array of live jazz performances on a weekly basis. The Esplanade organises the annual Mosaic Jazz Fellow mentorship programme where young, aspiring talents receive coaching and guidance from established jazz musicians in Singapore. The Singapore International Jazz Festival has been an important annual event in the local musical calendar since 2014.
All in all, the jazz scene in Singapore is healthy right now, and it is poised to get even better.
What new projects will you be doing in the near future? Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
As I am writing this, my group and I are making plans to participate in two international jazz competitions happening next year. I’m also doing a fun project of recording solo flute music by classical composers that inspired my jazz playing and writing. These will be done at various indoor/outdoor public spaces in Singapore with natural reverberations––documented in the form of YouTube videos––inspired by saxophonist Ben Wendel’s “The Seasons”.
Our arts and cultural landscape represents diversity of unique traditions. For me, the future fully embodies expansive possibilities for collaborations to take place in the spirit of creativity. In years to come, I hope to be a part of this exciting journey in the arts scene of Singapore; to explore and engage in cross-pollination with the other disciplines and discover what it might be when the spontaneous spirit of jazz meets multiculturalism in cosmopolitan Singapore.
As legendary trombonist J.J Johnson puts it, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put & it never will.”