Pianist and UMS music lecturer
Kota Kinabalu-born pianist Ian Baxter was formerly the Head of Music at UMS, and these days he’s working towards his PhD.
“I take my Mum’s side. Her side has the musical genes. On her side, my grandmother plays piano, great grandfather plays violin, and my Mum plays piano.”
During his early years Ian’s family lived several places before settling in Tanjung Aru. “when we were settled, my mum bought a piano. she was brought up in a Christian school and the nuns taught her how to play music. One day I heard her playing a tune before going to work. So I said: ‘Okay, when you come back, I’ll play that song!’
“I worked it out in the morning, and played it when she came back. So she sent me to a music teacher, Leo Paul Chen. Actually he’s not a pianist, he’s a cellist. But he’s a music educator. His WIFE is a better piano player! I enjoyed it better when the wife taught me, because she was more gentle, somehow I can communicate better with her.
“So that’s how I started. I took grades up to Grade 6. When I was in Form 5, my Mum said ‘Why don’t you focus more on your Form 5s? Music you can do later.’ So I stopped, and somehow I didn’t continue. My parents never had an idea that I would make a career in music. My parents planned Law for me, or Business Admin (smiles). In Form 6, I didn’t continue with classical exams, but I still played piano.
“About this time Ronald (RONALD JAMES) came into the picture. Ronald was my neighbour in Tanjung Aru. His younger brother and me were classmates. We were still just listening to rock music, but Ronald was already doing all that heavy rock stuff. One day he said, ‘Ian, you wanna play keyboard for us?’ I said ‘Okay.’ Now when you go from the classical idiom to pop, there’s lots of things you need to learn how to do: find chords and stuff like that. I had a tough time. During that time there was no improvisation, it was all about transcribing, so you listen to the songs and try and transcribe chords.
“Then it started. During Lower 6, Upper 6, I played with Ronald a lot. At night, those guys will come around and flash their headlights at my bedroom window. So 9 o’clock they take me out, and bring me to one of those nightclubs, and we’ll play and jam! (He laughs) So that was the life.
“After Form 6, I was called up by RTM to do this ‘Sabah Centenary Celebration’. So we toured around Sabah. We were session musicians backing a lot of these artists brought over from KL. RTM would record it.
“Between ’79 to ’82 Hyatt hotel always brought international artists for their Christmas and New Year celebrations. I was in Ronald’s group – they called themselves ‘Mixed Blood’. So ‘Mixed Blood’ was booked and we supported a lot of international artists: The Platters, The Supremes, Supremes Forever, Buddy Lawrence, Mariano Cordero, Ernie Djohan. They were from Indonesia, Hong Kong, the US, England. It was a lot of session work.”
Ian played with RTM Sabah and Mixed Blood, and got his matriculation in KL. Eventually, he thought about furthering his education. “I got some money playing this Centenary Celebrations, so I thought ‘I must try and apply overseas.’
Eventually, Ian aimed for Berklee College of Music, in Boston. “I sent a recording of one or two songs, and I sent in all my certs, and proof that I could pay my school fees.” He was accepted.
“You must have at least Grade 5 and above. Once you get there, they re-audition you again. Then they’ll know what level you can start.
“In Berklee. I felt so small! You think you know something, then you get there and there is so much to learn! During my time, Farid Ali was there, my junior is Datuk Mokzani. I met Steve Swallow, Steve Vai, George Benson. I worked for concerts for Spyro Gyra, Gladys Knight and the Pips, McCoy Tyner, there were so many. Throughout those three years, every night there was a concert. You see concert after concert. I was the supervisor for the Performance Centre and also the supervisor for the Berklee Library.
“There was one time I was in a 7-Eleven, and waiting in line in front of me was Lyle Mays (Pat Metheny’s pianist). I thought, “My God! Lyle Mays standing there right in front of me!” You see them in the street, and then you see the way these guys play, it’s like, Wow.
“Then you have Boston Pops and John Williams, and Boston Symphony. This was all walking distance from Berklee. There would be difference seasons: John Williams would be conducting the Boston Pops, then Seiji Ozawa would conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“At my convocation, Dave Grusin gave me my degree. A few of us were able to meet him outside, take photographs with him, that was cool.
“I had two piano teachers. One was Neil Olmstead, who has written some books. The other one was Craig Najjar, who is a student of the late Bill Evans. He owns a studio in New York, and he’s also a pilot. So he flies up and down, between New York and Boston. So he used to tell to me about Bill Evans, he was telling me about how he does all his solos. ‘This is all very carefully planned shit,’ he said! That was his words, you know!
“So he showed me that Bill does plan it out, the forms and stuff, the chords he uses, already he kinda arranges it. But when he plays it, of course it’s improvised. He can articulate so well, even though he didn’t practise scales. The harmonies that he uses are just fantastic. I’m still learning how he does those things. I know maybe a little now, probably.
“My major influence is probably Bill Evans. There are so many good keyboard players, like Mulgrew Miller, of course Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, and there’s one – Dave McKenna – I like.
Returning to KK, Ian looked for Ronald James. “While I was in Berklee, I sent Ronald all my books, and he starts reading all the books. So when I get back at least he will also know all the things that I know.
“Ronald is a fantastic musician. He has a great ear. His ear is very, very sharp. I have very high respect for him. Especially in terms of his musicianship. He knows all those things like how to transcribe, write, arrange. Maybe he might not know stuff like the philosophy behind music, how the ear receives sound, which instruments suit each other – that’s orchestration. If you go on to do your Masters or PhD then you have to get into that, and things like modal scales.
“But as a musician, he’s really fantastic. Yes, a lot of these good guitarists have passed through him and learned from him. Like Raimon. Like Romeo. Like Oswald. They all pass through him.”
Ian, Ronald and a few others set up Baxter & James recording studio which operated from 1990 to 1998. Ian also helped with the family’s Sulug Island tourist operations, and played for the hotels at night, until he got the call from UMS, to lecture Music. He has remained there since, attained his Masters in Brisbane, and was Head of Music from 2007-9.
“For young people who want to take up music, they must — first and foremost — love music. You cannot take up music because you think ‘I need a career’ or you want to take up music because you want to earn big money; there is no such thing. They must love music. That’s the only way that you can improve, because you like doing it, you want to learn more, you don’t have to force yourself to practise or read music books. Then if you want to expand, go to university.”
I asked Ian about working local musicians here. “This is their HOMELAND. It makes them undisciplined. Look. If they get a gig in Japan, they stay in the hotel. The music starts downstairs at 7pm and finishes at 10pm. They got no place to go, nothing to do except practise and then walk downstairs to play the gig.
“But because they live HERE, their homes are here. So if the music starts at 8.00pm, they will be like ‘Okay, I’ll leave my house at 7.50pm.’ because it’s close by, and all that. I tell my students about that all the time.
“At UMS, we train these students now. When they graduate, they go out and teach other young people. Hopefully, in time to come, those that come to university will already have had some training, and their starting level will be a bit higher. They’ll be able to read, and write, and arrange. Something like that.”
Ian Baxter is now registering for his PhD, which he intends to complete at Universiti Malaya. “There is a Doctor of Music whom I want to supervise me.” He is conducting research on the music of the Orang Sungai.
“So I go to the Kinabatangan area, right up to Tongod. I study and analyze their music, their structure, their melodic contours, the instruments that they use, the type of scales that they use, the type of rhythmic patterns that they use. Stuff like that. I wanted to find out whether the Orang Sungai music is actually an original Orang Sungai music.
“UMS needs to be a specialist in a niche area. For us, one obvious area is Ethnomusicology. We have an abundance of resources, Sabah has so many sub-ethnic groups. This is a good place to learn about traditional music, traditional instruments. Ethnomusicology can be our strength.”