The ancient Greek work syndikos, from which the term syndicate evolved, means “public advocate - caretaker of an issue”. With Bassment Syndicate’s debut album, Morning, this innovative cross-stylistic/cross-cultural band, is indeed taking care of issues, advocating some brilliant fresh perspectives on (as vocalist-trombonist, Marques Young, intones in the introduction) “smooth grooves, soul, jazz and hip-hop,” with, I might add, some rock, funk, and R&B mixed in for good measure. At first description, this might sound like an overly ambitious stylistic potpourri, particularly for the band’s first release, but once plugged in, and turned on, any doubts will rise like mist lifted by the dawning sun. Although much of the album is textless, the musical narrative is richly descriptive. Guided by the track’s titles, and the multi-faceted soundscapes they evoke, one soon realizes that Bassment Syndicate is pining about morning in its broadest sense: from the late-night-party-ramifications, to the intimate encounter-associations, as well as the twilight ruminations, that accompany us into days’ emerging.
In the way Morning captures musical portraits of late nights and early mornings, the recently formed Bassment Syndicate is a similarly vivid snapshot of the thriving, dynamic musical cosmopolitanism that the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, currently enjoys. The two Malaysian members of the band: the gracefully funky bassist, Koh Keng Hui (known in musical circles by his nickname “Fook”), and the drummer Omar Ibrahim Azmi, whose driving, authoritative grooves belie his youthfulness, are both leading, recent graduates of ICOM (International College of Music), Malaysia’s answer to the Berklee College of Music. The American trombonist-vocalist, Marques Young, trained in both jazz classical traditions, shows deep understanding of lyrically informed post-bop jazz artistry, with smooth soulfulness that comes through in both his singing and his brass playing. The New Zealand born keyboard wizard, Hiran Benton, demonstrates strong piano jazz roots in combination with expert electronic keyboard and programming skills; perfect for fusing the neo-soul, R&B, and hip-hop timbres with jazz, and which unifies the band’s eclecticism into a unique soundscape that defies easy categorization. The collective talent of the group is indeed impressive, and with the artistry of emerging guest stars, guitarist Yehuda Manusama, and vocalist Najwa Mahiaddin added to the mix, this debut release will be sure to impress.
Take the kaleidoscoping track, Confusion, for example, which appears at the nexus of the album, and brings together all the forces of the band, including its special guests, to stirring affect: opening with a Hendrix inspired guitar riff from Manusama, which leads to Young’s yearning neo-soul melody over Benton’s colorful chords and Ibrahim’s insistent back-beats, followed by Fook’s entrance on the second verse, bringing a steadily building groove, we realize this ballad is something special. Indeed, on the second chorus with a poignant call and response between Young and Mahiaddin, on the uncertain anticipation of a newly formed relationship, “tell me what you’re feeling, cause I love what I’m hearing, baby,” makes the musically contrasting, hip-hop-rap break that follows before the final chorus, all the more surprising and satisfying. The shifting soundscape exemplified in Confusion, and that is captured throughout Morning, is bold and adventurous, yet the progressive sequencing of the tracks and the sincere confidence which Bassment Syndicate performs, lets their music flow organically from scene to scene despite the multifaceted experimentation.
The opening Introsyndicate fades directly into 3:70am: that elusively foggy time when the dreamy-hazy night pulses on in one’s head, despite the body’s insistence to call it a night; and if one frequents discos, bars, jazz clubs, and late-night hangs, then you’re already familiar with the musical disposition the band evokes when they extemporize on this driving funky-mellow groove.
When the worries of the day are washed away by activities of the night, distant bitter and sweet memories can rise to the surface of one’s consciousness. The march of time conjured in the enigmatically titled Powder Monkies, and the carefree childlike dreaminess it paints, acts as a evocative foreshadow for the beautifully conceived Mother that appears later in the album. From the two note falling melody, “mo – ther,” that opens the track, to its emotional climax, this penetratingly sumptuous ballad themed on the most fundamental and complex of human relationships, is a musical tour-de-force. Featuring Young’s lyrically virtuosic trombone, with brilliant contributing solos from Manusama and Benton (and outstanding ensemble playing by all), Mother demonstrates what a tight-knit and mature syndicate this band truly is, despite its relatively recent formation.
With, BS’n, Saladin, and Naw, Bassment Syndicate elucidates that although it has a penchant for cross-stylistic experimentation, their roots are firmly planted in jazz, (particularly in the classic pop-funk-jazz fusion heralded by Miles Davis and his bands of the 1970s). BS’n, with its 70s funk groove, replete with classic guitar pedal effects in combination with extended harmonies and angular solos, and Saladin led in tandem by Azmi’s driving backbeat and Fook’s (who is featured in a tightly-conceived, virtuosic solo) energetic slapbass technique, these two tunes are also vehicles for Young’s formidable skills as an improviser. Naw, with its morning misty richness, supplied by the rhythm section, features Young on a Bill Evan’s inspired piano in dialogue with Benton’s electronic keyboard vocalizing.
The ebullient Polaroid, rounds out this remarkable album, and captures the unbridled joy of waking up to a new day, fresh with possibility. This sunrise snapshot is apt metaphor for Bassment Syndicate’s fantastic debut, and the diversely vibrant, multifaceted South East Asian musical scene they represent.