After years of ups and downs, Frenchmen Sebastien Adnot and Nono McKay hope their new jazz club will be the hub that allows the genre to flourish in Phnom Penh.
A saxophone cuts through the murmur of patrons crowding around the bar; fingers dance on the neck of an upright bass. It’s opening night at Jazz Club Phnom Penh, and while the lights are low, spirits are high.
For years, the city’s small jazz scene has struggled to find a home, but Frenchmen Sebastien Adnot and Nono McKay – musicians themselves – hope they’ve made one with the new club, which opened last Friday in the capital’s BKK1.
“In Phnom Penh . . . we have restaurants that hire a band, but we really thought there’s a lack of real, decent clubs where you can go listen to some good musicians with a good sound system,” Adnot said over a cigarette last week at the then-unfinished venue.
“We want people to say ‘Oh!’ in Phnom Penh we have a jazz club, a good place for musicians,” McKay said with a finger-snap, taking a pause from painting the night-sky stage backdrop.
The pair has grand designs for the 1920s, Paris-themed club to be the hub of Phnom Penh’s music scene, with the emphasis on jazz.
“We’ll have open Jazz Jam night on Tuesday, Khmer music night on Wednesday and have jazz artists on the other nights,” Adnot said.
But while regular jazz events throughout the city at venues Bouchon, Est.bar or the Governor’s House have proven successful in recent years, dedicated jazz venues seem to have been cursed.
“When I first came, I did a lot of jazz . . . but then everything dwindled,” Malaysian drummer Lewis Pragasam said during a rehearsal last Wednesday. “But in the last six months, all of a sudden – jazz!”
John Banks, general manager at Est.Bar, which has a dedicated jazz night on Wednesdays, said the gigs had been packed since they started nearly three months ago.
Banks, who has seven years experience managing bars in Asia, said it was unclear whether the jazz scene would take root, “however, everyone is jumping on it”.
Richard “Ritchie” Boisson, who’s been a jazz musician for 15 years and plays for Est.Bar’s house band Ritchie and Friends, knows all too well the difficulty of sustaining a jazz club in the city.
“There was Studio 182 above Topaz restaurant in 2010; it was the first jazz place, and I played there with Philippe Javelle, but after one year, it went bust,” Boisson said.
“The image of Studio 182 was successful – people miss it and still talk about it,” Javelle said during a rehearsal with Pragasam last week. “It was a bit early.”
“Jazz moves and has always been around,” he continued. “It then went to the Riverhouse on Wednesdays and Sundays – Seb [Adnot] was part of that.”
Then in 2013, Boisson opened The Groove with the late Alain Dupuis at the same location of Adnot and McKay’s club, but it was unfortunately not a success.
“I saw that making music and managing the club was not easy with the market at that time,” Boisson said.
One of the challenges of running a jazz club was that jazz enthusiasts didn’t go “hard enough”, he said.
“Everyone likes jazz. The problem is the people who like to listen to jazz don’t drink a whole bottle of whiskey in a night like at a nightclub with R&B,” he said.
According to Javelle, many other venues that opened in the early 2010s initially programed “an explosion” of live music, but many tapered off or closed.
Bouchon, a wine bar a block south of the Royal Palace, became a fixture of the nighttime live music scene, dedicating Wednesday nights for the past two years mainly to jazz and blues.
For Javelle, “It’s not the jazz that sells, it’s the mood we are setting”.
“It’s important to have this harmony between the venue and the music inside,” he added.
Bouchon’s manager Stanislas “Stan” Loubieres – who is also a friend of Adnot – said there was no doubt that the scene was developing but cautioned that “it’s still a bit risky”.
A constantly changing lineup and attracting an even mix of locals, as well as Western and Asian foreigners, Loubieres said, had been key to success.
A slew of new musicians arriving in town could also give the scene the kick it needs.
“Some new musicians arrived in town and, of course, they are able to play jazz and they are making the scene,” said McKay, an assessment managers and artists Post Weekend interviewed agreed with.
For Pragasam, a vibrant jazz scene in the city seems natural.
“Jazz is more alive in Asia than anywhere else,” he said optimistically, noting that some of the biggest jazz festivals of the world take place in the region. “Why not have a jazz festival here [in Cambodia]?”
“It requires having an audience that is informed, that appreciates,” he said. But that may be the crux of the problem. “It’s a young city for music.”
But Adnot and McKay hope that with their “for artists, by artists” approach, they will make the club a space where local and foreign artists develop, play and learn from each other.
“There’s no point to make a jazz club just for the expats with expat performers, there’s no point for us,” Seb said, stubbing out his cigarette. “But it takes time for musicians to get to the level.”
“We want true bands with soul,” McKay said.
“This is not a place to make money or make business – yes, it’s not free – but for us, this is a place for artists, and the public will feel it,” Adnot added.
At the very least, with soundproofing that permits the music to go late, they’ll attract those who seek something besides the nightclub beat to end their night.
“Oh, go to Jazz Club, have a last drink.”
Where all the hepcats are in PP
With the arrival of new artists and the openings of new venues, live jazz can be found throughout the city nearly every day of the week.
The newly opened Jazz Club Phnom Penh on Tuesdays has an open jazz jam session, which invites artists to come play at the club, with free drinks for musicians. Wednesday, meanwhile, will be Khmer Music Nights. The rest of the week – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – will feature top quality jazz performances.
Jazz Club Phnom Penh, #1c Street 282 (above La Terrazza). Tel: 0964 783 642
A fixture for the past two years, Bouchon wine bar sets aside every Wednesday night for live music, which usually features a jazz and blues set.
Bouchon Wine Bar, #3 Street 246. Tel: 077 881 103
Historically a venue for jazz music, the Riverhouse Asian Bistro on Saturdays from 8:30pm onwards features a jazz duo with Clay George and Larry Martinez. Starting in September, Monday nights will also be jazz music nights.
Riverhouse Asian Bistro, corner of Street 110 and Sisowath Quay. Tel: 023 992 420
A relatively new arrival on the scene, Est.Bar’s house band Ritchie and Friends plays jazz every Wednesday night from 8pm onwards and regularly schedules jazz and other live music events.
Est.Bar, #19Z Street 214. Tel: 023 988 227 or [email protected]
For those seeking a more upscale atmosphere in a colonial setting, The Governor’s House schedules evening jazz and blues performances on Thursday nights.
The Governor’s House Boutique Hotel, #3 Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Tel: 023 987 025
Attracting a more alternative crowd, jazz can nonetheless be found at Mestizo, which opened late last month and had a Latin jazz night last week with Lewis Pragasam, Norman King and Philippe Javelle, and this Saturday has booked the Amok Soul Project.
Mestizo, #114 Street 95. Tel: 085 502 779