(Note: Links to 12 Mongolian jazz MP3s, plus some examples of traditional music, are found throughout the story. A complete list of the links is also at the end of this article.)
Third-world wages may cause widespread misery and injustice, but they certainly allow kick-ass Christmas parties.
The sidewalks on this sub-zero night are full of drunks, phone vendors at small tables selling calls for a few tugriks and throngs of commoners buying staples from stands where plastic sheeting offers surprisingly effective protection against the cold. But a block away in the city's showpiece hotel, well-to-do mining company employees at a lavish ballroom banquet are getting a full night of live concerts by the country's most talented musicians.
"It doesn't cost a lot here to get the best and we want to reward our employees for a good year, so we're able to give them a sort of a 'Best Of Mongolia 2005' evening," said an upper-level executive with the company.
Passing judgment on those drinking inside or outside is unfair ignorance, which is why those kind enough to let me crash the company's fancy-dress party are unnamed. They accepted a long-haired, unkempt stranger with a suspicious tale about traveling halfway around the world to see if there's jazz in Mongolia at a time of year when many hadn't seen a tourist for months.
Performances vary widely in talent, with traditional musicians and dancers being more impressive than a mostly second-rate string of bands playing imported pop and rock. For me, the main lure is the Black And White Band, Mongolia's first post-transitional jazz group.
They get going after a couple of hours, opening with an up-tempo pop-fusion led by a middle-age man whose tenor saxophone resembles smooth's Richard Elliot in phrasing and tone. A rhythm section dominated by synth imprints keeps a steady beat with no pronounced solos. Next is a contemporary waltz featuring a younger woman playing an over-processed violin, then a handful of standards with vocalists that are often strong, but misguided, further distorting an audio mix that's muddled and too heavy on volume.
Faint praise, perhaps, and certainly an argument in favor of calling this frigid trip a lunatic's errand. Then again, these are hardly ideal circumstances: a haphazard jam with performers from other bands, mediocre sound equipment, and a crowd whose focus is mostly mingling and dining.
"They are just like the ones I did in the U.K.being ignored on stage, being less popular than the disco and getting paid more than regular gigs," wrote Steve Tromans, a U.K. pianist leading a year-long jazz awareness/education program in Mongolia, reflecting on his performances at similar functions this year.
It's a lot to overcome in a country where inherent struggles are already plentiful.
Jazz reportedly was brought to Mongolia by an American car salesman who enjoyed playing it, with big band flourishing during the middle of the 20th century. But the Cold War and Soviet rule all but destroyed the foundation, and rebuilding is proving slow.
"Although Mongolian musicians have been playing music in a jazz style since around 1960, the scene is very much in its infancy," Tromans noted in an e-mail interview. "There has, however, been something of a 'jazz explosion' in recent years, mainly as a result of greater access to Western culture since the fall of socialism in the country in 1991.
"The socialist Mongolian music education system (though impressive in its classical and traditional training) had no room for pop, jazz or other 'capitalist' styles of music-making. This meant a distinct lack of drummers, electric guitarists, bass players and saxophonists."
There are no improvising saxophone, trumpet or trombone players to the best of my knowledge. There are certainly a fair amount of brass players, just not ones who have any decent level of improvisation skills."
There are almost no in-country recordings and the number of truly accomplished jazz musicians might still fit comfortably on a nightclub stage. But the scene has grown tremendously just during the year since my visit. Two new clubs hosting regular jazz gigs and a jazz academy opened, and the second Giant Steppes International Jazz Festival last October doubled the inaugural event's attendance with 1,500 people listening to three days of concerts.
"I look for Giant Steppes to be one of the best jazz festivals in the world in next 10 years," wrote Bob Bellows, a pianist living in Florida and China who is among those credited for bringing modern-era jazz to Mongolia, in an e-mail. "Why? Because of the mixture of instruments that can be used from the countryside and added, and then Mongolia will have a distinctive jazz sound all its own."
Sowing The Seeds
Bellows first visited Mongolia in 1995 during a trip between Russia and the Far East, performing a week of concerts at the Music College in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. He returned a year later after receiving an invitation to teach jazz improvisation to students educated mostly in classical music from Russian teachers.
"The students want to swing, but very few had or have the feeling for creativity," he observed. "I found a few and built from those."
The strength of Mongolian musicians, he added, is their interest in learning and practicing.
"They have much more time than in the west and are not always busy, so they can spend hours in rehearsal and learning harmony and chords and new sounds," he wrote.
A handful are now in advanced music studies in other countries, including a bassist who switched from classical to jazz and is in Rome.
"If I go to Italy she would be my bassist," Bellows wrote. "Why? Because she has the feel. As you know, jazz is freedom of expression, improvisation (and) syncopation among other things. She has all of this. The big thing is to get them to loosen up and create and have fun."
Included in Bellows' 2004 light jazz/world double-CD All Of Music is "Ayanii Shuvuud" (listen/download), featuring a number of Mongolia's most notable jazz-playing musicians including pianist/drummer N. Gambat and Degi, a woman who is probably the country's most famous violinists.
"When jazz pianist Bob Bellow first played in Mongolia, he showed musicians here what real jazz harmony and rhythm is," Gambat said in an interview during the first Giant Steppes festival in 2004.
Gambat is general regarded as Mongolia's most acclaimed jazz musician, performing songs as part of a larger repertoire since the early 1990s and increasingly devoting his time to it in recent years. A classically trained pianist, he is the drummer in Tromans' UBop Band because "he is practically the only drummer in the city who can come close to the subtleties of the swing feel," according to Tromans, adding new educational programs are changing that rapidly.
Gambat, an original member of the Black And White band when it formed 10 years ago, said outside influences have been vital for his jazz development.
"I was first introduced to jazz when I studied at the Armenian Music Conservatory...but when I went to Berkley School of Music in Boston in 2002 I saw that jazz is so different (in the U.S.)," he said during the 2004 interview. "We have a lot to learn. In Mongolia we are just playing the surface."
"Mongolians play the morin khuur with an instinct and inherent sense of the instrument. Someone in the U.S. could learn the morin khuur there, but if they came to Mongolia and played, their sound and style would be totally different from a Mongolian's, because they learned it in a foreign land."
Gambat, performed in Calgary in February of 2005 under what that city's paper called a "fledgling" Canada-Mongolia jazz-exchange program. Part of that exchange includes the Northern Lights Quartet, which performed with Gambat in Canada and at the 2006 Giant Steppes festival.
"He doesn't have the kind of loose free-flow that people who have been improvising all their lives have," said Robin Tufts, the NLQ's drummer, in a Canadian radio station interview. "But he has big ears and a very keen sensibility of jazz."
Gambat is also composing songs that tend to have a folk quality and simple harmonic structure, which makes them fun to play, Tufts said.
Another Canadian with musical ties to Mongolia is vocalist Deb Rasmussen, who has been making regular trips there since 1996 as agricultural economist and fundraiser for children's and cultural causes. She started Mongolia's jazz library in 2002 after interviewing musicians there and learning about the dearth of material.
"We accumulated about 160 recordings, a few real books and the Ken Burns book on jazz history," she wrote in an e-mail. "We tried to get recordings that would follow the development of jazz from early ragtime through to recent recordings and feature as many of the most important individual players as possible."
A few more items have been added since, but educational materials are still in short supply.
"What's needed most now are theory materials and instructional materials," Rasmussen noted. "Self-teaching and practice materials would be very useful for different instruments and vocals."
Rural Mongolian life is largely unchanged from centuries ago and some aspects of city life are still reminiscent of Cold War-era Moscow. But Rasmussen said the population has a 98 percent literacy rate and a reverence for music that's natural for jazz.
"Within Mongolia's growing urban middle class, I think a Mongolian jazz will find an audience and I suspect it will be heavily influenced by their folk music traditions," she wrote. "At the same time, I think the general audience will warm first to the standards and big band music. Mongolia is a singing society, so jazz vocalists are going to find a welcoming audience."
Bush-league misadventures in the land of Genghis Kahn
Whether it's warfare or window shopping, Mongolia's beauty can be rugged and brutal.
Mongolia made a rare appearance in global headlines last November when George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to visit the former Soviet satellite country. The trip was motivated partially because Mongolia was one of the last remaining supporters of the Iraq war, with the 136 deployed Mongolian troops ranking third per-capita among U.S. partners. Perhaps coincidentally, FOX News was the U.S. news station fed in by satellite to where I was staying, unlike most other countries that carry CNN.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also has Mongolian ties, receiving a horse a few months before Bush's visit. As a result, according to The Wall Street Journal, Bush was so concerned he'd be honored with a similar gift that he couldn't take home on Air Force One and didn't want to care for from afar that the question "occupied not one but several meetings at the National Security Council."
Ultimately, the president didn't get a horse, depriving him of what's still considered the best means of transportation in Mongolia (along with camels). Terrain ranges from Siberian forests in the north to vast deserts only a couple hundred miles to the south, but nearly all of it is arid as the Central Asian mountains block off humid air from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Temperatures range from more than 100 above to 50 below Farenheit.
There's only about 1,000 miles of paved road and even those are congested and full of potholes due to an explosion in vehicle traffic, which increased 450 percent between 1990 and 2000. In Ulaanbaatar, it's often a bumper-to-bumper melee.
"Many of the current microbuses, which already endanger public safety, often carrying 20- plus passengers on bald tires, look like they're on fire as they roar down crowded streets," an editorial in the English-language UB Post notes. Traffic lights seem to be optional and the accident fatality rate of 28 people per 10,000 vehicles is higher than nearly all other central Asian countries, with one-third alcohol related. Collisions with pedestrians, the newspaper adds, are even more alarming.
"Darting between cars like a game of Frogger," the Post states. "Drivers often stop for the elderly, but even that common courtesy is becoming rare."
There's a web of dirt roads, but many are just wheel tracks leading to rural tourist camps. There's no train service except a single, albeit famous, international track. Small airplanes make regular flights to a number of outlaying areas, but are expensive and winter service is often spotty or nonexistent.
Getting to Mongolia can also be a pain for a Westerner. I was coming from Central Asia, about 500 miles away with one other border to cross, except that border belonged to China. A U.S. resident needs a visa to enter China, even to change planes in Beijing. The "easiest" alternative was through South Korea or Japan, requiring three long flights over four days. Direct flights from Germany, Italy and Russia are also possible.
For a return trip I plan to get a visa, but for Russia so I can take the Trans-Siberian Railway from the east and connect in Moscow, where the line turns south for Beijing. For those who want to keep going after Mongolia and see China, there may never be a more tourist- friendly time than before the 2008 Olympics, as they're putting fresh paint on everything (including the grass) and sweeping the "undesirables" off the streets.
Left numb by the opening act
Coming off the plane in winter, the cold hits like a gunshot.
Passengers walk across the tamarack to the Ulaanbaatar terminal, just long enough for an initializing touch of painful freeze to be felt in a multitude of areas exposed by those dressed for the comfort of a pressurized cabin. At the exit of the smallish but reasonably modern terminal is the usual Third World melee of touts trying to hustle tourists into taxis and rooms.
I passed them expressionless and got into a tiny beat-up car with a skinny old man behind the wheel, figuring he'd be the most trustworthy. Using an exchange of numbers and symbols written on a notepad, he agreed to take me into town for what seemed a reasonable price. As he started to pull out, one of the touts got into the front passenger's seat and started to talking rapidly to him. My "escort" then told me in broken English he'd get me to town for four times the fare I had just arranged and asked where I was staying. Experience has shown basic civility doesn't apply in such situations and the last thing Westerners with money need is a hustler knowing anything about them. What ensued was 30-seconds of shouting amounting to my saying "Get. Out. Now."
The drive is not attractive, circling the edge of a city that looks like a worn-out industrial mecca, with tall smokestacks spewing black clouds. Air pollution is frequently five times the acceptable limit, due mostly to intense coal burning but also to the abundance of vehicles that often are in poor shape.
But Ulaanbaatar has its showy side. At the city's center is the multi-block Sukhbaatar Square, surrounded by government and arts buildings with historic prestige and architecture. Among the square's monuments is the Zero Kilometer Marker, with locations in Mongolia often referred to in terms of how far they are from it.
About 500 yards from the marker was my chosen spot of indulgence. Frugal and adventurous travelers sleep in traditional fabric huts known as gers for a few dollars a day; I was in a palatial hotel with heat, TV and a small room with computers hooked to the Internet. Temperatures on those short days seldom rose above zero and I decided I wasn't exposing myself or my Powerbook to the elements. The best are about $60 a night, roughly a month's salary for the average Mongolian, but there's something to be said for splurging on a place that might cost $500 a night in many cities.
Food runs the same range, but here my tastes prefer simple to fancy. No, this isn't the land of Mongolian barbecue joints; Chinese is surprisingly dominant even if it borders that country (a lengthy feature in the newspaper observed this while searching for those most worthy). More interesting are hole-in-the-walls serving common fare like zuivan (a stew of mutton and homemade noodles) and buzz (steamed dumplings filled with meat). Those wanting more substantial and elaborate can always try boodog, where a whole goat is roasted from the inside by filling it with burning stones and tying off its neck (after removing the entrails through the throat). Mongolian vodka is said to be excellentmaybe due to the influence of neighboring Russianand the popularity of salt tea (better than you might think) is common to many mountain dwellers of Central Asia.
For jazz fans (and coffee devotees) more interesting in nourishing the soul than the stomach, the Nayra Cafe offers what a Post reviewer calls the best recorded jazz in Mongolia, a rare location to get real espresso instead of the instant Nescafe served almost everywhere else and decent pastries, although sandwiches tend to skimp on fillings.
My late-night arrival left none of those options open, at least within the few blocks I was willing to walk in temperatures that almost immediately turned my ungloved hands numb. Fortunately for night owls, kiosks selling cigarettes, candy and ramen noodles are strewn liberally on street corners. In one of life's great have/have-not ironies, the hotel's tap water was so hot there was no need to heat it before making the noodles and some tea.
Half of Ulaanbaatar's population doesn't have running water, the rest have an average of three hours of hot water a day if the energy plant has enough coal. But every child receives a morin khuur, the country's traditional stringed folk instrument. It's this national emphasis on building up the spirit, if not the streets, that gives foreign players hope their efforts to bring jazz to the country will be successful.
"I performed on a variety of stages not up to the standards we impose or expect in our country," noted bassist John Hyde of Calgary's Northern Lights Quartet, which participated in the most recent Giant Steppes festival, in a blog by the band members. "This did not affect the performance of any of the artists I stood with. Each individual seems to carry a passion and spirit wholly devoted to the music."
A rough musical primer
Tourists might be long gone by December, but a fair focusing on them is the big event my first morning there.
Hosted at a nondescript building that passes for a convention center on the outskirts of town, the mystery is why locals are flocking to look at rows of tables with fliers about tourist camps, hotels and guiding companies whose customers are almost entirely foreigners. Turns out most only gave the exhibits a quick once-over; they were there to hear a day-long series of performances by different traditional Mongolian musicians, many of whom they seemed to know personally.
They crammed around a rough stage near the entryway and on school cafeteria-like benches eating something cheap and fried. On stage, sounds ranging from traditional throat singing known as khoomei to folk on morin khuurs to pounding instrumentals from ensembles mixing traditional and modern instruments were delivered at loud volumes. Many were accompanied by dancerssometimes a couple, sometimes manyin traditional garb.
One of the first groups was also one of the most interesting from a jazz perspective, as a sextet of three traditional string-instruments and a reed-based horn provided the lead sounds for modernist arrangements of ancient tunes, with a drum/bass combo backing them up. The compositions were intriguing in rhythmic complexity, but something of a letdown in their repetitivenesssongs typically alternated between patterns. Hopes the horn player would go off on a wild improvisation tangent proved futile.
Other performers were a similar mix of interesting and disappointing. The appeal was hearing unusual vocals and instruments I'd heard on CDs performed live. Part of the disappointment was their largely ceremonial nature, with visual elements such as elaborate fur outfits and proper dance steps often taking priority over sound. Also, even the best playing suffered the indignity of distortion because a too-loud sound system allowed drums to overwhelm everything else. Finally, it felt like an overview of the "Mongolian Music 101" many doubtless play for tourists, or like a band sticking to greatest hits at a concert instead of stretching out on a more intimate stage.
Talking to the musicians proved difficult, a bit a of surprise since English is supposedly gaining in popularity as a second language with younger Mongolians. At best I was able to get names (or so I thought, more on that in a moment), the instruments they were playing and a comment along the lines of "it's fun to play the music of our ancestors." One consistency was none seemed to play jazz or have thoughts on similarities it might have to the ancient tunes.
As for names, there was a fair amount of confusion over what proved to be a misunderstanding of culture, not language. I kept getting only first names, although other times they wrote what turned out to be their village or instrument of choice next to them. It turns out surnames were eliminated in the 1920s by the Communist party. The ban was lifted in 1997, but many still observe the practice even though the population has reached the point where it's causing numerous complications because of the multitude of duplicate names.
Those passing out fliers at the tables were more accustomed to English-speakers, but weren't much help in my hunt. Representatives of a couple of hotels that reportedly hosted occasional jazz acts said they didn't know of any, if they ever existed.
An afternoon exploring downtown on foot proved a great deal more painful as the cold drove me indoors every block or so to stores selling clothes and other staples. Nothing about them was especially noteworthy compared to similar Asian cities not in the first economic-tier, or any given low-rent U.S. neighborhood, for that matter. On the streets in many countries there's something rather unique for sale (i.e. people being able to weigh themselves on bathroom scales in Kyrgyzstan) and in Mongolia the surprise was seeing how many official phones were offered at sidewalk tables because of the large percentage of the population without one.
It seemed a gold strike might be in order on the main street at a rustic wooden storefront which fading letters proclaimed to be the Chingis Beer Jazz Club. A flier promising live music that evening was on the door and, while they weren't open yet, a couple of people including the manager were inside. Alas, after exchanging drawings and a few words of common English, it became clear it was a rock gig. Jazz was either a non-existent or long- ago presence despite the pub's name.
But the hunt wasn't in vain. A couple of record stores dominated by Asian and U.S. pop had some decent traditional instrumentals among the tourist-oriented Mongolian compilations. Better, at least in theory, was the discovery of an album by the saxophonist for the Black And White Band. But the nine-song disc is a dead ringer for a Kenny G knockoff that, much as I wanted to like it, couldn't get excited about. It's cleanly played and recorded, but the melodies are simple, the rhythm sections robotic, and there's only occasional faint hints of a Mongolian accent that might add depth. Among the better efforts with such character is "Manan," a slow-building sequence of phrases by different players to a steady contemporary beat (hear or download the song).
Several "Mongolian ethno jazz" albums have been recorded by the German group Boerte. Their 2003 release Muruudlyn SalkhiWind 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.
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 pentatonicsI 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."
"Of the three piano players I have heard playing jazz music since I've been over here, Ganbat, Purevsukh and Anar, Purevsukh is the best. His playing is influenced by the musicians he has heard on CDOscar Peterson, Michael Petrucianni, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, and he has a strong desire to learn as much as he can about jazz. I have been teaching him, privately at first, and more recently at the UB Jazz Academy, for the last four months, and his playing has improved exponentially since then.
As for composing jazz based on Mongolian songs, much of it is a natural fit.
"The Mongolian songs do seem to fit perfectly into a bossa nova style without sounding cheesy in any way," he stated. "Putting them into swing is a little more difficult and you have to select the right Mongolian song for the task. Some of them are written in 4/4 with three-bar phrases which I find extremely interesting to play over. The temptation to 'square them up' to four-bar phrases is sometimes overwhelming but to be avoided at all costsotherwise where's the challenge?"
Other foreign musicians say the communal attitude and honed interest Mongolians have about culture also bode well when it comes to the future of jazz.
"One thing I have always enjoyed about Mongolia, as compared to many other developing countries, is that the foreign community is not sequestered in any manner," Rasmussen wrote. "There are no 'foreign' restaurants or clubsall places are patronized by a mix of Mongolian and foreigners. The foreign community is simply too small for a business operator to try to operate only on the expat community. That means that any venue offering jazz is doing so because the combined audience is interested in the music, not simply the foreigners."
Bruce Petherick, the pianist for the Northern Lights Quartet, wrote in his band's blog that the attention from audience members was surprising.
"What is amazing about its people is they listen so intensely," he wrote. "They're having fun, but they're just so concentrating on what they're doing. And that makes it from a performer's point of view wonderful."
Several players said they work to expand education programs and special performances in 2007, with a third Giant Steppes festival tentatively planned for 2008. Tromans said he plans to remain involved beyond the year-long project he originally envisioned, where the answers he's found in Mongola are inspiring "given the current global political situation and the perceived lack of harmony between many countries of the world."