Jazz artist Jacqueline Teh explores the colours of love

In Toronto’s jazz and choral communities, Jacqueline Teh has her hand in a lot of projects.

The 25-year-old musician, composer, arranger and conductor is busy. Teh composes for and performs with the Cantabile Chamber Singers. She is the musical director of an upcoming production by the Necessary Angel Theatre Company. She’s the conductor of the St. James Town Children’s Choir. She directs the University of Toronto Small Vocal Jazz Ensemble. And she teaches at Ovation! Performing Arts Academy.

Meanwhile, Teh has ambitious creative pursuits of her own.

She sings with Moodset, a jazz and R&B ensemble that aims to foster a vibrant atmosphere that emphasizes the collaborative, exploratory creation of original, soulful music. Last year, Moodset’s live showcase featuring on-the-spot composition was chosen as one of the TD Discovery Series Special Projects. The group has been slowly but surely working toward a debut album.

Last summer, Teh completed a personal project in which she composed one song each day — 30 in total. The result is titled Love is a Colour, featuring modern compositions with flavours of jazz and R&B. In it, Teh explores a series of perspectives on love and relationships, with each song represented by a different colour.

We asked this former participant in our Jazzology program to tell us more about her influences and approach to making music, and what we might expect in the future from this young talent.

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Moodset seems like a fascinating project. Can you tell us about the band’s approach to creating music and fostering a community?

As a band, our approach to creating music had always been collaborative. We would take turns bringing fragments of ideas into rehearsals with the intention of fleshing out a full piece. Our compositional approach has most frequently been improvisational, in that we would improvise over either a melody, chord progression, or rhythmic ostinato until all members of the band have created a part for themselves within the music. When our band first started out, we hosted open jazz and R&B jams at local bars and restaurants and we welcomed musicians of all levels and genres with the hopes of building an environment that demonstrates jazz in a modern setting. We wanted to share our love of jazz through the use of popular genres as a medium, to make our music more accessible to listeners who are new to jazz.

How do you go about bringing all these different sounds and influences together?

As a group, we already shared many of the same interests and musical influences to begin with. We are all friends outside of the music, so this enabled our music-making to have a preset sense of cohesion. To bring all our different sounds and influences together, we begin with a foundational element, usually played by one member of the band, that serves as a platform for all our ideas to become infused. This base element can either be a repeated melody, a bass line, a short chord progression, or a groove on the drums — there is really no limit as to what it can be, other than being somewhat repetitive. [Then] all other members of the band improvise over it until we find something that connects us all together and sticks.

Credit: Cassandra Rudolph Photography

Who are some artists that have been influential to you?

This question is tricky, as I feel that there are many different facets to my artistic self. Although there is quite a bit of crossover, I have drawn from different influences to help me in the different areas of my career. In terms of traditional jazz, I have too many influences to list, but most notably my approach to music changed significantly after listening to Nina Simone and Sonny Rollins. I have also been very influenced by more recent R&B singers such as Daniel Caesar and Frank Ocean.

With Love is a Colour, you explored love and relationships with each aspect represented by a different colour. How did you come up with this concept?

I came up with this concept as I associated many of my songs to different memories. Each memory offered me a vivid image or sensation, which I then translated into a colour. I wanted to offer listeners not only an aural experience, but also a visual one. Since it might have been too excessive to describe each memory or sensation that I felt in each song, I used individual colours to incite a more immediate response, while also allowing listeners to reflect on their own reaction to the colour and music. I didn’t want to give too much away — I wanted listeners to come up with their own ideas about each song.

Can you give an example or two of those compositions and how the music and the colour relates to a certain perspective on love?

The song Did features a shade of green. The song is about a past love and the sadness that comes with the realization that you no longer feel the same as before. I selected the colour green because it is one that I associated with this relationship, as it was, in many ways, quite prevalent when we were in each other’s presence. Beyond that, however, green is a colour that is known to be soothing to the eyes. I wanted this song to emit a sense of calm, despite the sadness and the loss. I wanted to show that even at the end of a relationship, we can find solace and peace with ourselves and with one another.

The song Fever opens with the lyrics “love is a colour” and inspired the title for this project. It explores my experience as an Asian woman who has dealt with men who claim they have “yellow fever,” which is an offensive term that describes a non-Asian person’s desire and fetish for Asian people. I selected yellow as the colour for this song to take back the colour and give it a new and empowering meaning. Yellow has often been used as a negative descriptor for Chinese people, and even to this day I have met men who tell me they have “yellow fever,” which is both disturbing and offensive. Not all perspectives on love are positive, and I wanted to show my perspective on these one-sided romantic situations.

What are some of the best gigs you’ve played recently?

One of my favourite gigs that I recently played was in August of last year. I planned my own show at a spacious café to showcase the music I had written for Love is a Colour. I loved this performance because I had been so anxious about sharing my music with others in person, especially since this was a solo venture and I did not have a full band at my side, and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I felt that I really grew from the experience. I invited my family and close friends, as well as teachers who have inspired me over the years. So although it was a well-attended event, it still carried the intimacy of a smaller show. I loved allowing myself to be vulnerable around people who were eager to listen to my thoughts and emotions.

You’ve also been keeping busy with the Cantabile Chamber Singers, the Necessary Angel Theatre Company, the St. James Town Choir and a lot more. How do you like being on the conductor/director side of things? What are your favourite parts of the job?

I really enjoy it because I feel that it gives me a chance, in a way, to give back to the community. Growing up, I always sang in a choir, from children’s choirs to more advanced high-school ensembles. These experiences really helped to shape the musician I am today, so it’s nice to be given the opportunity to help younger singers to find their voices. My favourite part of the job is watching the music begin to come together and seeing the full progression. Whether I’m the composer/arranger or conductor, I get to hear the singers learning the piece for the first time, making mistakes along the way, and understanding how their part fits with the other parts. It is always so satisfying for everyone when everything starts to click and fall into place, and we all get to hear and experience what the music is meant to sound and feel like.

Credit: Danielle Sum Photography

How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it?

My experience with the Jazzology program was very positive. Everyone I met along the way, whether in person or through email correspondence, was very kind and supportive. I especially enjoyed my interview with Heather Bambrick. It was really nice to get to share my music and my thoughts with her, as she is really great to talk to and seems to always ask the perfect questions.

How did the program help with your personal and professional development?

It provided me with a platform for my work. It is always difficult to find the confidence to put yourself out there, and the Jazzology program definitely gave me the right kind of push to share my art and my ideas in a safe and supportive environment.

Why is music education important to you?

I know how it can change someone’s life. There is a sense of community and of vulnerability in learning music. The combination of those two things really lends itself to developing self-confidence and an appreciation for others and their artistic journey. I think music teaches us compassion, as it gives us an outlet for our emotions and creativity, and enables us to become more empathetic towards others as we learn about ourselves.

What about other plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?

My plans for the future include recording an album using the content I wrote for my Love is a Colour project, and planning more shows around that music. Years down the road, I would like to continue teaching and working on new projects. I would really like to be able to teach more at the post-secondary level and help others to develop their own ideas and to grow.

You can follow Jacqueline Teh on Instagram and Soundcloud.