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"I can still sing, and I still have these songs, so while it's of course frustrating that I can't do it all myself anymore, I'm grateful that I've still been able to work with all these amazing people to get my music out there," shares Chan.
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Marked for a return

New album Blue Guitar showcases Mark Chan's musical strengths distilled into catchy pop songs.
Oct 14, 2016 5:50 AM

VERSATILITY can be hazardous for an artist trying to craft an identity in a world obsessed with pigeonholing. Just ask a stylistic chameleon like Lenny Kravitz. Or an actor with the audacity to record an album, like Hugh Laurie.

So the diverse responses one gets when one mentions Mark Chan is quite understandable. Mark Chan the national swimmer? Or is it Mark Chan the opera composer? Perhaps Mark Chan the flautist or pop singer? The answer to all of those questions is simply yes. Mark Chan, 57, has been all of those and more.

That's one of the reasons the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (Compass) awarded him an Artistic Excellence award this year. And on Oct 14, Chan will release Blue Guitar, his first pop album in two decades.

The real news

Since we're talking about a singer with a multi-octave range and an uncanny knack for memorable melodies, that in itself is newsworthy.

But perhaps the real news is that Chan recorded this album after an accident that left him in pain, unable to play the flute or most instruments, and only barely able to handle the undersized little blue guitar that gave the album its name.

"I can still sing, and I still have these songs, so while it's of course frustrating that I can't do it all myself anymore, I'm grateful that I've still been able to work with all these amazing people to get my music out there," he shares.

That team of collaborators includes producer-arranger George Leong, who was also honoured by Compass with an Artistic Excellence award this year. Jazz pianist Jeremy Monteiro plays on four tracks, which he also produced. And that means we also get to hear from Monteiro sidemen such as the ever-tasteful Mohamed Noor, drummer Tama Goh, and blisteringly dextrous guitarist Eugene Pao.

It's an unabashedly retro album reminiscent of Spandau Ballet, with a dash of musical theatre underpinned by raw authenticity. "I'm from that era so of course it's retro, and while I wanted to make an album that was accessible, I also wanted it to represent me, so that's why it sounds the way it does," Chan explains.

The Monteiro tracks are jazzy and swing, as one would expect, but it's the more straightforward pop numbers that really stand out.

Not all of the songs are new, though only long-time fans may realise it. Sizzlingly-slow scorcher Stay is actually from Chan's 1985 debut album, and drips with yearning etched by cello, courtesy of the T'ang Quartet's Leslie Tan.

Catchy hooks

The album's title track is definitely catchy, and is the sort of resigned yet optimistic number you'd play in the car with the top down. But the star of the album's probably A Leap In The Dark, with its deft pacing and the sort of relentlessly catchy hooks Chan is known for.

The penultimate track, Return, is a song about roots and belonging, and wouldn't be out of place at a National Day parade. It's also bittersweet because of the song's flute part. It's beautifully played by flautist Rit Xu, but it's exactly the sort of thing Chan would have performed himself if he were only able to.

By then, you think you've taken the album's measure. Short, radio-friendly fare, right? Well, what's a Mark Chan album without at least one curve ball? The album closes with an instrumental, Heart Forever Breaking. Guitar and pipa bounce off each other in a sonic sea over which Sunny Wong weaves the most exquisite melody with erhu and gaohu. It's a reminder of Chan's compositional chops, and it's also a teaser for what a new album of instrumentals could sound like. Hopefully, Chan won't make us wait years for that.

Delays are always a danger with Chan, who continues to battle his injuries and juggle projects, which include a production for next year's Singapore International Festival of Arts and his debut novel, which will feature a character from his 2010 chamber musical, The Rain Came Down Like Pearls The Night I Died.