I’m on set with Reza Salleh, the frontman for The Frankie Sixes, a swing jazz band that’s poised to take the country by storm, and he’s dressed in a button-up, jeans, and a pair of Chucks. A far cry from the bespoke suit he had made at Admire Tailors for his gigs.
“This is me,” he says. “I rarely keep up with trends.”
Surprisingly apt, seeing how he performs music from the 1930s. His neatly-cropped hair also tells of a different phase of his life, compared to his indie shag back when he was one of Augustman’s Men Of The Year back in 2011.
Back then, Reza was a singer-songwriter and indie event organiser. Today, he and his band – The Frankie Sixes – are releasing their latest self-titled swing jazz EP.
It has been a long journey, for sure, and anything could’ve happened in the past decade since Augustman last spoke to him. Which is why Reza furnishes me with a quick update.
“I’ve continued doing music all this while,” he says. “I organised shows all the way till 2018, and towards the end, I remember focusing more on open mics and helping younger musicians make their mark in the industry.”
Even after leaving that part of his career behind, Reza still remained in the music industry, joining a government-funded agency to further the music economy in Malaysia.
“I’m proud of the work I did in that short amount of time,” Reza says. “Life in that agency was intense, but I found it to be a rewarding and learning experience.”
With this deep entrenchment in the music industry, and with all the experience he’s gained, it’s easy to think that Reza must’ve had formal education on the subject before joining the industry. Turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I studied Business & IT, but never worked a relevant job one day in my life,” he says, laughing. Even the day jobs he got to complement his career all involved music to some degree. Everything he now knows, he learned on the job. And he doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon.
“The fire within has never faded, and will probably never fade,” he says. “I won’t discount the fact that I might make a similar jump like I did from indie to jazz, but even then, I’ll consider myself expanding my repertoire, and not necessarily ‘switching’.”
He‘s so open-minded about his continuous evolution that when I cheekily suggest he might someday pick up dubstep, he doesn’t dismiss the thought. At least not right away. “I might remix swing music with a touch of hip-hop, and do it in a Malaysian way. Who knows?”
Of course, his optimism is not without reason. Reza has had a wide variety of musical influences growing up, and he’d listed the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and even Boyz II Men as his go-tos.
But equally diverse are his interests outside of music. In fact, Reza is a self-proclaimed geek when it comes to hobbies. He plays board games like Catan, he loves RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, and his latest video-game interest is the rogue-like dungeon crawler Hades.
Not the typical things one might expect when trying to pigeonhole a swing jazz singer. But that’s the thing about Reza. He can’t be stereotyped.
“I love all things pop culture. I also used to read a lot, and I’m a big sci-fi fantasy buff. Some of my favourites include Ender’s Game, The Silmarillion, and the Dragonlance series.” According to him, he’s always been a fan of storytelling, and that’s what he tries to do in his music career.
Which brings us to the next part of his story. More specifically, the genesis story of his swing jazz career. How did he make the leap from indie to jazz?
“I’ve always been curious about whether I could sing jazz, and it’s by joining the local swing dancing social events that I actually sought to answer that question.”
But that answer isn’t as straightforward as Reza would lead you to believe. Because at first, he summoned more of his event-organising abilities rather than his singing talents. And that’s how he began connecting live bands with the swing dancing – or Lindy Hop, as it’s also known – community.
The more he connected these two communities together, the more he would find a reason to start his own swing band, which was how The Frankie Sixes was born.
Today, besides performing worldwide and having just released their new EP, The Frankie Sixes still works closely with the swing dancing community to keep the scene going and growing.
This symbiotic relationship is evident in the band’s newly-released Lindy Hop music video celebrating their first single, Tepuk Amai-Amai. In it, over a hundred different swing dancers from all across the world contributed to the band’s music video, be it through improvising a dance or choreographing an entire routine for the song.
But the single is not the only thing Reza is busying himself with these days. There’s also the marketing and planning involved with playing in a live band.
There’s rushing for the launch, securing of sponsors, figuring out the economics, coming up with the visuals, and finalising the ticketing, to name a few. This is besides arranging the various gigs they’re to play at, both locally and internationally. So it’s safe to say that Reza’s plate is pretty full when it comes to promoting The Frankie Sixes, which is a good problem, really. Especially seeing how the pandemic threatened to end all live shows not too long after The Frankie Sixes was formed.
“Even before the pandemic, things were rough in the music scene. Then lockdowns happened and there were zero gigs. Thankfully I found that agency job right before the pandemic. Now, the scene has come back with a vengeance, which is good for live bands.”
And with that resurgence comes a lot of time spent on stage. So how does Reza prep himself to perform? Does he chant a mantra or break out a few push-ups in the dressing room? According to Reza, it’s much simpler.
“I make it a point during the last half-hour before a show to slow everything down. I won’t talk as much, centre myself, and just try to be in the moment. This helps me a lot. I speak better. I’m not so rushed. My breathing is less shallow. It’s my way of getting in the zone.”
That’s just the singing portion, however. He does have to interact and mingle with the crowd too. Which begs the next question: Is Reza an introvert or extrovert?
“I’m both, actually. While at my gigs, in a room filled with people, I never get tired. And during the lockdowns, I didn’t suffer either. I’m a gamer, so I’ve learned that I can also be alone for long periods of time.”
But where he stands on the introversion scale isn’t the only thing Reza has learned throughout his music career. He’s also picked up some very practical lessons from his mentor and renowned figure in the entertainment industry, Jennifer Thompson.
“She’s been very supportive of my music and events that I used to do. We’re on the same page, so I bounce a lot of things off her.”
Besides approaching Thompson for advice, Reza also learns from everybody else in the industry, and he does so without bias. Whenever he sees something cool, he approaches the person and asks them how they do it. Maybe that’s why Reza’s music career shows no sign of stopping.
Not all lessons come from others, though. Sometimes, Reza learns from his own experiences. “Late in my indie career, I decided to take some vocal lessons. That changed my understanding of my own abilities, even today. For instance, I used to think my vocal range was limited, but it was much wider than I thought.”
Reza’s second lesson would come when making the transition into jazz. “There were all these notes I weren’t familiar with. And the transitions were so different. My tone, my approach – I had to review them all when we were recording our jazz EP.”
But perhaps his biggest takeaway from his music career was the realisation that one just needs to find their ikigai to be able to apply themselves fully. Reza admits to wondering if he was too chill at certain points in his life, but that was until he found his passion in music. And since then, he’s managed to hustle without ever feeling like he’s doing work.
With all these gems that Reza has had to share, it almost feels like there’s nothing left to learn about him, but then he surprises me with one tidbit that he’s yet to divulge to the media, and that’s his Optimus Prime collection. At home, he has a couple of shelves stocked top to bottom with the main character of the Transformers series.
“I’ve always been a Transformers fan, but since the first movie came out in 2007, I turned into this avid collector, and I could tell you the going price for any given model at the time.”
It’s these little gems that make Reza who he is. Underneath the slicked-back hair and decades of music experience lies an everyday guy who likes space operas and video games – basically someone like you and me.
And it’s through this relatable demeanour that makes us feel like we, too, could aspire to find our passion someday. Just like how Reza did with his music.
About The Frankie Sixes
This six-man band consists of singer Reza Salleh, pianist Hin Ee Jeng, drummer Wong Keng Joon (KJ), double bassist Shah Herwan Superdi (Che Wan), saxophonist Eddy Lim, and trumpeter Isaac Marvin.
The band’s name comes from a dance move invented by Frankie Manning, one of the founders of the swing dancing form called lindy hop, rather than the headcount of the band itself.
How did you guys form the band, and why swing jazz?
Reza: I always felt curious about singing jazz and at a Lindy Hop event, I asked Ee Jeng’s jazz trio if I could sing a set. It went well, so I asked if they wanted to join this project band of mine and the rest is history. I decided to keep it strictly swing jazz more as a unique concept and identity for the band, an angle that was supported by my goal to address the huge gap of swing jazz band options in the region for Lindy Hop communities and to reintroduce swing jazz as a fun and danceable genre.
You each bring different things to the table. What’s the creative process like between all of you?
Ee Jeng: At the moment, Reza and I are the main songwriters. Reza covers the lyrics and melodies whereas I cover the harmonics and rhythmics. This serves as a guideline for the rest of the band, but the most important aspect is actually the band’s musical chemistry that helps give life to our performances
Any special fan interactions come to mind?
Reza: I wouldn’t call it a fan interaction but I was in Singapore attending a Lindy Hop social event just as a dancer, and someone whom I danced with recognised me and knew that we had played in Bangkok a few months back. That was really satisfying to know that we were being noticed in the larger community.
What do you guys do when not rehearsing or performing?
Ee Jeng: I teach, Reza and Shah Herwan are gamers, Isaac hangs out with family and friends, Keng Joon does woodwork and Eddy spends time with his family.
What advice do you have for young and aspiring musicians?
Ee Jeng: For me, always be true to yourself. Doing music should come with honesty and not for the sake of wanting to become famous, for example.
Tell us more about your latest projects.
Reza: We released our first single Tepuk Amai-Amai end of last month, together with a Lindy Hop dance video involving over 100 dancers across 12 countries. Our immediate focus is our EP launch which is a four-day affair happening on the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st of May at Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Damansara Perdana. Tickets available at www.dpac.com.my.