Beishan International Jazz Festival, China, 19-20 October 2012

Beishan International Jazz Festival, China, 19-20 October 2012
Ian Patterson By

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Beishan International Jazz Festival
Beishan Theater
Nanping Town, Zhuhai, China
10-20 October, 2012

Jazz festivals occupy some fairly far-flung, diverse, and oftentimes dramatic settings; from the Polar North to the volcanic mountains of East Java, from medieval European towns to the great urban metropolises of North America, from tropical Thai islands to luxury cruise ships, from Borneo to Central America and all places in between. But a jazz festival in a 200-year-old Chinese theatre and temple complex dating from the Qing dynasty-the last of the great imperial dynasties before the foundation of the Chinese Republic-is a first.

The Beishan International Jazz Festival in Zhuhai was actually celebrating its third edition, and judging by the packed house and vibrant, enthusiastic crowds on each of the two nights, it's clear that jazz in this part of the world is resonating greatly with a young, music-hungry audience.

The Beishan International Jazz Festival is the brainchild of artists and music-loving brothers Simone and Justine Xue. With the profits from their English school of many years standing, the Xue brothers purchsed the dilapidated theater and adjacent temple buildings and set about restoring them: "We bought the theater and temple six years ago," says Festival Curator Simone, "but we weren't sure exactly what to do with it. We knew we wanted to do something, and a few years ago, we thought, yeah, a jazz festival," he says with a mischievous grin.

The idea of a jazz festival in a city all but devoid of jazz might have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but in just three years the Beishan International jazz Festival has established itself as an essential date in Zhuhai's cultural calendar, one of the best jazz festivals-and their numbers are growing-in southern China.

Situated on the southwestern estuary of the Pearl River, the city of Zhuhai is just a 50-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong to the east. To the south, Zhuhai borders Macau, and with Jiangmen to the west and Zhongshan to the south, this modern city of 1.5 million people is a tourism and transportation hub. Having won national and international awards for its sound environmental policies, the city boasts 300 kilometers of bicycle lanes. Green, spacious, famous for its oysters and flanked by mountains, Zhuhai has a lot going for it, and the Xue brothers were confident that a jazz festival would work.

From an artistic point of view the BIJF set the bar high from the get-go, with an ambitious program that refused to underestimate a young audience largely unfamiliar with jazz. In its first two editions, the BIJF brought bands from Norway, Canada, France, Holland, the USA, Australia, Malaysia and China. Norwegian bassist Steinar Raknes, Swiss trio Rusconi, German/Afghan singer Simin Tander and Norwegian trio In The Country all wowed the festival crowd in the first two editions.

The BIJF strikes a balance between tradition and experimentation, and this was most evident during this year's festival. Jazz was represented in many of its guises, from big band swing to a set of jazz standards, from bebop and hard-bop to jazz-funk, and from beat-box to experimental rock.

The Xue brothers, however, had a much broader vision, and a sister festival, the Beishan World Music Festival was successfully launched in 2011, with a similarly eclectic, open-minded program. The venue, Beishan Hall, was part of the original temple site of Nannping village, and the brothers want to make it once again a focal point of the community. The narrow, bustling streets of the surrounding village are home to tea shops with their Mahjong tables, dumpling vendors, butchers, barber shops and the local market. Courtyards standing off the winding lanes are framed by the brick-wood houses of the villagers whose ancestors have walked these same lanes for 700 years. It's a glimpse into a rapidly disappearing China, as voracious urbanization levels the old, two- and three-story shop-houses and in their place erects forests of skyscrapers to house a burgeoning immigrant population.

The BIJF is part of a project labeled the Beishan East-West Cultural Hub, aimed at providing access to the arts, entertainment, and educational training, as well as boosting trade and tourism. As such, since 2009 the remodeled Beishan Hall has become a center for art exhibitions, business conventions, and of course, the jazz and world music festivals.

The exterior stone walls house the hall, an inner courtyard and several temples; the temple of the Medicine King, the temple of Kang Zhen Monarch and the Cai Bo temple-all in all, 1000 square meters of cold stone floor and impressive columns climbing to wooden-beamed ceilings. Ceremonial bells, ornate gas lamps and red paper lanterns, high-arched doorways and hanging drapes covered in striking Chinese calligraphy, make for a marvelously atmospheric setting.

There's an inescapable synergy about this beautiful old temple site becoming home to jazz. Both are challenged by the forces of modernity, but as the Xue brothers preserve the architectural and musical tradition, they do so in a thoroughly forward-looking way. Beishan Hall is no museum, but a living, breathing contemporary space that looks to the future, all the while mindful of the need to respect and preserve the traditions of the past. Ancestor worship and an ever-present, energetic creativity are common to Chinese culture and jazz culture alike.

Day one got under way with an afternoon workshop by American beat box artist Butterscotch. Winner of the first World Hip Hop Beat box Women's Championship in 2005, Butterscotch has since performed with Earth Wind & Fire, pianist Chick Corea and singer Patti Austin, as well as recording with bassists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten on Thunder (Heads Up International, 2008) and with guitarist/singer George Benson on Songs and Stories (Concord, 2009).

A rapt audience was treated to a thoroughly engaging and informative presentation, which started with a brief history of vocal tradition and body percussion from Africa to India. Butterscotch's recreation of snare and bass drums, hi-hat and drum fills, scratching, rap and trumpet-using only her voice and a microphone-was a revelation to those in attendance.

There was a healthy amount of individual and crowd participation in an enjoyable one-hour session. Butterscotch's easy-going manner was as pleasant as her ability to manage an audience was striking. She wrapped up her workshop by imparting some words of wisdom to those present: "Always practice slowly, and practice individual sounds," she advised. No doubt more than one Zhuhai youngster went home thinking, "Hey, I can do this!"

Just four rows of three-meter-long benches in the concert hall suggested that the audiences might be very small indeed, but by the time the Signe Juhl Quartet took to the stage, the benches were lost in the throng, with the crowd packing the theatre from wall to wall. The bare-footed singer Juhl led her Danish quartet through a swinging set of jazz standards dating from the first half of the twentieth century. Turner Layton/Henry Clayton's' "After You're Gone" from 1918 set the ball rolling in gently bluesy fashion. This was followed by the first of two George Gershwin/ Ira Gershwin numbers, "Oh, Lady Be Good," which featured some nice unison lines between Juhl and guitarist Bo Moller-who injected a little of the modern-day in proceedings with a biting solo-and "They All Laughed."

The quartet, rounded out by the impressive rhythm team of drummer Casper Mikkelsen and bassist Niels Kvist, then gave an intimate rendition of pianist Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," with Juhl's powerful vocal at song's end receiving a tremendous ovation from the crowd.

An original feature of the Beishan International Jazz Festival was a screen mounted to the right of the stage which alternated between relaying the concerts in real time and showing Tweets that audience members posted. Over the two evenings, around 1,300 Tweets were posted-the majority in Chinese-the first of which, after "Honeysuckle Rose," read: "I'm very touched. This is very exciting."

A little bossa nova and singer Peggy Lee/Dave Barbour's "It's a Good Day" brought a highly enjoyable, swinging set to a conclusion, with Moller saving his best to last, igniting the crowd with a lively solo. In another feature of the BIJF, after each performance the artists entered the hall to rapturous applause through a side-door, and under the glare of a spotlight walked along a red carpet through a guard of honor provided by the green-shirted volunteers. They then signed CDs, posters and t-shirts like crazy for fifteen or twenty minutes before exiting the way they came, once again to generous applause and general hoopla fanned by the emcees. Show-bizzy perhaps, but the razzmatazz was enjoyed by artists and audience alike, and in general, the treatment of musicians, media and guests was outstanding.

Tweet: "Jazz I love you!"

Though YouTube is banned in China, the ingenuity that characterizes the Chinese no doubt means there is a way to navigate around the ban, and should any of the audience choose to check out any of the Signe Juhl Quartet's covers on video, they are going to find their way to jazz giants such as singers Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith, trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, saxophonist Eric Dolphy, guitarists Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, violinist Stephane Grappelli, pianists Art Tatum, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk, clarinetist Benny Goodman and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, to name just a handful of artists who have performed these songs in a variety of jazz styles.

The Li Gao Yang Quartet, the first of two Chinese bands, was next up. Li, at just 18 years of age, has been playing saxophone since the age of six, and in a very short time has made a name for himself as a musician to watch out for. Li was one of several artists who officially inaugurated the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival 2011, and this was his second appearance at the Beishan International Jazz Festival. Li is unashamedly old school, and whether on tenor or soprano, his vocabulary drew mainly from bebop and hard bop.

Li's technical command of his tenor was evident from the start of the self-penned "Akane," but there's much more in his bag than mere virtuosity. His barreling solo in tandem with drummer Cameron Reid showed plenty of saxophonist John Coltrane's influence, and like Coltrane, the blues is ever present in Li's voice. Just as impressive, however, was his leadership; quietly commanding the quartet in undemonstrative manner, Li was generous with the space he accorded the other musicians, showing a musical maturity beyond his years.

Tweet: Crazy. High quality. Perfect.



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