Nathan Hartono

Nathan Hartono (Photo: Jayden Tan)

After his indie pop EP Edge of Days, which tackled themes such as trauma and self-love, and last month’s Tokyo On My Mind, a danceable mid-tempo track with masked Japanese duo AmPm, Nathan Hartono is returning to his jazz roots. For a bit, at least.

This Sunday (31 July), the popular 30-year-old singer-songwriter and a constellation of well-known local musicians, including singer Joanna Dong, will join King of Swing Jeremy Monteiro on stage at the JASS Benefit Gala 2022 — the first full-fledged in-person gala held by an arts company in Singapore since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

Jeremy Monteiro Nathan Hartono Alemay Fernandez Jazz Maduro
Nathan Hartono with Jeremy Monteiro (left) and singer Alemay Fernandez (right) during the livestream of Jeremy Monteiro at 60 – A Life in Music.

Jazz, of course, is Hartono’s first love. The winner of singing competition Teenage Icon was still in secondary school when his debut album Let Me Sing! Life, Love and All That Jazz topped HMV’s Jazz Chart on its release in 2006. 

“Jazz built the blocks of my music, my expression, and in turn, my personality. It taught me how to improvise, take risks in the moment, and just take life a lot less seriously. I find it to be an amazing place to start with broadening perspectives on music as a whole,” muses Hartono, a champion for music development.

Themed Swing It!, the gala is billed as a triple celebration of Monteiro’s 45th career-anniversary, the 121st birthday of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, and the 6th anniversary of the Jazz Association (Singapore), of which Monteiro is a co-founder. The annual benefit raises funds to support its mission of nurturing jazz excellence and building Singapore into a city of jazz.

In 2020, during the pandemic, the jazz charity also added a new pillar to its work — supporting eligible local jazz musicians impacted by crisis with short-term financial aid.

Guests craving the thrill and emotion of live music will also be beguiled by a sonorous big band. “It’s something I know I took for granted over the years,” says Hartono, whose set includes, Night and Day, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, and It Had To Be You. “These are some of my personal favourite Sinatra standards that Jeremy and I got very excited by the possibility of performing.”

(Related: Meet Reggie Pryor, finance professional by day and jazz musician by night)

Nathan Hartono
Nathan Hartono (Photo: Jayden Tan)

You entered the jazz scene pretty young. Has what you’ve experienced with the community changed over the years?

I know when I started in 2006 I felt like I was constantly surrounded by people at least twice my age. It was amazing to be so close to such amazing artistry, but I honestly felt quite disconnected with most people on a personal level due to age gaps. 

Nowadays I see so many more young people, diving into it and taking these risks to try to live as a musician. A whole generation coming up together in larger numbers than ever, and that excites me for the future of the arts here.

Multilingual people often think in their first language. Do you think in song?

I don’t think in song. But I’m told by almost everyone who hangs with me for the first time that I hum and make sounds a lot. It’s a bad habit at this point.

What would you say is your superpower or talent?

I think empathy. I’m good with reading people’s feelings and (mostly) knowing how to be there for people. And I know for sure that this is directly related to my music journey. To improvise and play with another musician is to speak without words. Knowing where to give space, when to shine, when to step back. All things that can be directly applied to your daily life.

What’s next up for you?

More of my own music really soon!

What’s on your playlist? 

Panam Panic! A French jazz-groove band.

(Related: Meet Chan Chi Ling, jazz drummer and civil servant at the heart of the Covid-19 battle)