Composer, arranger, conductor and talented jazz pianist Dato’ Mokhzani Ismail had the honour of being appointed the youngest Music Director of RTM Orchestra, the longest-running orchestra in Malaysia, just over 30 years ago. This month, Going Places shines a spotlight on where his long and illustrious career has taken him, and his views on the local music industry.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Kampung Alor Lancang, Jejawi, Perlis in 1962 as the second and youngest child to a pair of teachers. I was a real kampung (village) boy, growing up surrounded by paddy fields and a serene environment. Today, I am a husband and a father of two. My son just graduated from flying school and my daughter is entering her fourth year of medical school in Dublin, Ireland.

How did your career in music begin?

My father played the violin in his younger days, and when I was eight, he bought a piano for himself to learn and asked me to take up violin. After a few months, I gave up and tried the piano instead, discovering that I could play any melody I heard on my father’s turntable by ear and memory – anything from joget and asli zapin to Latin repertoires, rhumba, mambo and cha-cha.

Upon entering the Specialist Teacher Training College in 1980, I realised I could not progress much without being able to read music notes, so I was sent for a crash course on playing the piano professionally and reading music notes while working as a music teacher until 1986.

I received a MARA scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music, Boston in 1987. This was where I learned jazz piano from some of the world’s best teachers like Prof. Ray Santisi (who taught Keith Jarrett and Diana Krall), Prof. Bob Winter and Prof. Laszlo Gardony. I also studied orchestral arrangement under Prof. Bob Freeman, who produced Wynton Marsalis’ album.

Returning to Malaysia in 1990, I performed in hotels for a few months before being invited to be RTM Orchestra’s pianist in 1991. I had the honour of conducting RTM Orchestra at Konsert Senada Seirama in Indonesia in 1993 and the Bangkok International Jazz Festival in 1996. By 1998, at the age of 36, I was appointed RTM Orchestra’s youngest music director.

The RTM Orchestra is Malaysia’s oldest music orchestra. Having led them for 20 years now, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed?

In the old days, RTM was undoubtedly popular, being the only broadcasting station in the country. Things were much easier then. Now, there are many new private broadcasting stations coming up with fresh content.

In order to compete and stay relevant, we produced albums and hosted mega concerts. We also participated in prestigious music festivals such as the KL International Jazz Festival, Bangkok International Jazz Festival, Jakarta Jazz Festival and Java International Jazz Festival. Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, RTM Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in Malaysia.

Name some of the award shows where you were invited to be a judge.

I was honoured to have been a judge in award shows like the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) Song Festival in Bangkok, Hanoi and Jakarta. In Malaysia, I’ve been invited to TV3’s Anugerah Juara Lagu, Astro’s Gegar Vaganza and RTM’s own programmes such as Bintang RTM.

What are some of the most memorable moments of your career?

Apart from leading the RTM Orchestra, I conducted the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra for Chris Botti’s world tour in 2011. I was also a speaker at the International Music Conference in Glasgow, Scotland and Lyon, France in 2014.

The following year, I was appointed International Piano Ambassador for German piano brand Hagspiel and got to perform live at the Great Wall of China. I travelled to many cities across China to conduct talks and masterclasses in jazz improvisation, and also managed to record my solo piano album titled The Great Wall Comes Alive.

In 2017, I was awarded the Grand Master Brand Icon Leadership Award by Brand Laureate and was appointed an adjunct music professor at UPSI.

Who are some figures in the music world that you admire and what do you admire about them?

I am a great fan of modern jazz pianist Bill Evans and the greatest pianist of all time, Oscar Peterson. I admire Bill and Oscar’s artistry. Listening to them creates ideas in my playing, pushing me to practise more. I would listen to the record, try to absorb its essence and then apply it to my playing. I do listen to other genres of good music as well, not forgetting classical masters such as Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms.

What inspires you in your music and your life?

My main inspiration would have to be my family. They have always been there throughout my career for all of its ups and downs. Also, not to forget, my followers who have always appreciated my music.

You regularly post videos of yourself playing jazz music on the piano on Facebook. What are you working on at the moment?

Apart from being RTM Orchestra’s music director, I travel to China frequently as Hagspiel’s brand ambassador. Facebook is how I stay in touch with my followers, wherever I may be. I will be leaving RTM in a few years and I hope to leave behind a legacy to inspire young musicians in Malaysia. My hope is that my successors can bring RTM Orchestra to even greater heights in the future.

What is the local music industry like for classical and jazz musicians?

Unlike in America or Europe, the small Malaysian music scene doesn’t allow musicians or singers to focus on a single genre. Only the versatile can succeed here. You can’t force people to change their musical tastes, but over time, you can educate them to choose good music.

What do you think of the pool of musical talent available in Malaysia?

We have a lot of young talent locally, but the music scene is small and the chances for them to move forward are limited by the number of platforms available for them to portray their talents.

Do you have any advice for young musicians in Malaysia?

If you believe music is your passion, do not let anyone deter you from pursuing it as a career. There may be many obstacles and hurdles along the way but never stop learning and gain as much experience as you can. Try to stay versatile and be observant of the latest trends in our music scene.