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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
Several "Mongolian ethno jazz" albums have been recorded by the German group Boerte. Their 2003 release Muruudlyn Salkhi—Wind Of Dreams was at the same store. The five-member ensemble, named after a legendary mighty grey wolf from heaven that was an ancestor to the Mongolian people, is more a spiritual blend of many music elements than true jazz. Multi-section arrangements mixing classical and traditional Mongolian elements on traditional instruments are supplemented by vocals heavy on both nasal bass undertones and falsetto pipe-like overtones. The pieces are generally complex but easily absorbed, and hone the rough edges off of more traditional Mongolian recordings. Wind Of Dreams brings a classical ensemble depth by adding 10 traditional vocalists and instrumentalists, and a performance of the compositions occurred in one of Ulaanbaatar's major arts venues in 2002. The group has recorded five CDs, including a 2004 concert in Mongolia, and nine full-length MP3 songs from their albums can be downloaded free at their Web site.

By chance I also encountered a popular FM radio station where a station manager was kind enough to talk with me between songs in his DJ booth. He said his station didn't play jazz from Mongolia or anywhere else, and it isn't something listeners request. The only album he knew about was by a band he wasn't familiar with and didn't think was still playing, but had a digital copy of on a hard drive he burned to a blank disc for me. A couple of the 12 tracks appear to be from the album I bought, with most of the rest featuring various vocalists and pop/fusion instrumentalists. The final two songs are the closest to recorded straight-ahead I heard in Mongolia, even they are led by a keyboardist/pianist with an '80s Bob James/Dave Grusin touch (hear or download the final track).

I took time off from my music hunt to visit the hills a couple of times, climbing a roadside attraction called Turtle Rock and taking brief hikes across a frozen river or two. But the barren brown hills were nothing special compared to the spectacular jagged peaks of the Himalayas. Also, sticking to areas accessible by road seemed necessary due to the cold, but kept it from feeling like I was seeing much of the real Mongolia.

The growing pains of a budding jazz scene

Discovering the mining company's Christmas party was entirely a stroke of luck, occurring when I saw a man hauling a sax into a hotel two days after I arrived. A hotel employee stopped me at the entryway to the ballroom, but agreed to find somebody with the company to talk to me. He turned out to be a high-level executive who, like most of the attendees, were expats from North America. After looking dubious during most of my explanation of my musical mission, he agreed to let me in if I stayed unobtrusively near the entrance.

That actually proved advantageous since it was closest to the stage. The first few acts were a variety of Mongolian ensembles similar to the the tourist fair, although a formally- dressed group of eight couples dancers from Mongolian Music College performing a synchronized routine in front of the stage was noticeably more polished.

The Black And White Band came on stage at 9:30 p.m., apparently with a mission to cover a lot of genres quickly. After their initial instrumental fusion and waltz tunes, vocal standards included "Mack The Knife," "The Girl From Ipanema," "New York, New York," and "Love Me Tender" (which finally attracted some dancers from the audience). The next band picked up the BAWB left off, shifting to popular generic rock, including an early "New Year's" observation toast, which is when I hit the road.

My host—" despite his original gruffness"—came by several times to chat and offer food and champagne. He also told me about a place a few blocks away he went to occasionally called the River Sounds Music Club.

River Sounds, it turns out, is one of three locations where jazz is played regularly year- round. The current total of four gigs at those places each week is more then when I was there, likely due to Tromans and other visitors performing in bands they formed. But the Black And White Band, or at least some of its members, was playing there two days after the Christmas party. It seemed like a chance to hear their potential in a more natural setting.

The results, while somewhat better, were less than I hoped for.

To begin with, they didn't start playing the Tuesday show until 11:30 p.m., which seems absurdly late for an audience anywhere but Spain, where they sleep until noon after going full tilt into the wee hours. Mongolia's population is dominated by people working agricultural and other jobs where being up at dawn is essential. Only a couple of maybe the dozen listeners at the start of their show appeared to be Mongolians. Their fashionable attire suggested they were doing far better than their average countrymen.

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