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Back Roads Beat

Crashing Corporate Christmas Parties in Mongolia

By Published: January 10, 2007
The late start, 90 minutes past the advertised time, gave me a chance to check out the surroundings. The club is in a modern, if squarish, building with large neon signs dominating a mostly dark street. An adjacent section has a discotheque that seemed to be drawing a bigger crowd to a large dance floor. River Sounds seems more geared to listeners with lots of deep, very cushy armrest chairs one can easily sleep in (and the temptation was strong), The menu is dominated by cigarettes and liquor, plus Snickers bars costing 15 times as much as a cup of tea.

The show was similar in form to the corporate party a few nights earlier, opening with light contemporary before shifting to vocals featuring guest musicians. A guitar/bass/ drums combo alternated rock and ballad beats for four songs as simple leads were played first by the same sax man wielding a Kenny G-like soprano (his name, while I'm certain, may have been Boldbaatar Gungaajav), then a younger female violinist named Otgo. As with the hotel performance, solos were almost entirely eight-bar variations of melodies, either during as a bridge by a single player or sequence by many.

But a vocalist named Kulan elevated the evening's performance at times, shifting between low to high ranges freely and with authority during "Walk On By," then delivering a surprisingly aggressive and low-pitched rendition of "Summertime." But again it was the more popular tunes—"Let It Be" and "New York, New York"—that got a few dancers onto the small floor in front of the stage. Also, another mix that was too loud and distorted limited the ability to fully appreciate the better moments.

"This 'wonderful world' of Mongolian Jazz"

For Tromans, the growing pains of inexperienced musicians with a common purpose beat the "useless diatribe" of longtime experts.

In a blog he has kept since arriving in Mongolia in May, he said there's little creative inspiration in "traditional verses modern" debates among many purists in his homeland. He said there seemed to be the promise of much deeper discover within the simplicity of Mongolia's culture.

"I am banking on the fact that this country—" steeped in Shamanist tradition and where, aside from in the capital, people live a life little changed down the centuries"—will provide me with the key I am so desperately searching for," he wrote. "I know it's something to do with pentatonics—I find that octave divisions of five not seven are the most emotive and essential. Mongolian traditional music is rich with pentatonics and o-tones (overtones derived from the natural harmonic series) and, thus, Mongolia seems like the perfect place to try to answer my current musical questions.

After arriving, Tromans joined with Gambat and bassist Munkhbayar to form the UBop band, playing their first gig June 18 at Ulaanbaatar's Grand Khan Irish Pub. The show featured jazz arrangements of Beatles and Paul McCartney songs with few extended improvisations.

"(It's) well attended by a good mix of tourists, ex-pats and Mongolians," Tromans' blog notes. "I get the chance to stretch out a little on a couple of piano trio instrumentals...otherwise I'm really just performing in a support role to the vocals."

A week later the band extended its reach during the opening night of the Mealody Jazz Club. During the next few months the players expanded their repertoire with classic jazz songs, new interpretations of Mongolian music and originals, while also performing with an ever- widening circle of musicians. The UB Jazz Academy opened July 29 and the second Giant Steppes festival took place in early October. In late October, the Le Bistro Francais restaurant started a regular jazz night after seeing the response to the festival.

During his recent interview, Tromans said notable Mongolian musicians he has worked with include a female singer named Khulan "who sounds a little like Billie Holliday," a male singer named Undrakh with "a reasonable ability at 'scat singing'" and a female double bassist named Sugarkhuu who is a member of the Baroque Trio. He also singled out Andrew Colwell, a double bassist and Flamenco guitarist who is also trained in Khoomei throat singing and the two-string violin-like morin khuur.

"The bass players I've encountered in Ulaanbaatar (and we went through two in a matter of weeks before discovering Andrew) are not used to 'walking their basslines' (as in most jazz music), and are either classically-trained double bass players, or pop/soul/rock players," Tromans wrote.

The best Mongolian jazz musician Tromans said he's enountered is Purevsukh, who is "young and keen enough to be the guiding force for Mongolian Jazz in the coming years."

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