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Freespace Jazz Festival 2022

Freespace Jazz Festival 2022

Courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority


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When the floodgates open and international artists arrive again, the city would do well not to forget the greatest pandemic lesson of all–we got good players, too.
Freespace Jazz Festival 2022
Freespace, West Kowloon Cultural District
Hong Kong
October 26-30, 2022

Hong Kong's best jazz fest launched at the worst possible time. The debut Freespace Jazz Festival, in 2019, struck a bold chord with its choice of A-list international headliners— most especially Robert Glasper, whose frenzied set channelled the electric energy of the anti-government protests of the moment. But ongoing pandemic restrictions have hampered subsequent editions, with the three most recent events strictly local affairs, a few virtual encounters aside. It's notable that the longer-established (but somewhat smaller scale) Hong Kong International Jazz Festival (HKIJF) was not staged in 2022 for the first time in 14 years, after mounting two of its own all-homegrown multi-day affairs.

But at Freespace 2022, at least, there was a silver lining hiding in clear sight. A few days before the festival Tatler Hong Kong hosted a hard-hitting panel talk gathering prominent industry stakeholders to discuss "Where Do We Go Now? The present and future of live music in Hong Kong." While the unanimous takeaway was, inevitably, that the remaining Covid-era red tape needs to be ripped away before the scene can truly recover its mojo, there was also the widely shared view among musicians and promoters alike that, after 34 months sealed off from the rest of the world, for the first time Hong Kongers are appreciating their own. Fringe artists and genres—indie bands and hip-hop names especially—are commanding the limelight, blaring from subway billboards and selling out arenas.

And Freespace 2022 made it clear this effect has happened for jazz musicians, too. A global hub of close to 8 million, Hong Kong is home to a vibrant but disproportionately small scene, with a handful of treasured elder statesmen and a new generation of upstarts jostling for position on increasingly familiar bills. So with international touring acts off the cards, the festival has instead invested its considerable clout on giving these local artists the resources and platform they would never normally enjoy—and allowing them to truly shine.

This was especially clear on the closing Sunday night on the new Jazzscapes stage, where four of the city's best-known jazz musicians each stepped forward with far broader conceptions than the limited club circuit would allow them. (Where previous editions have balanced paid-for theatre gigs with free, family-friendly al fresco stages, 2022 introduced a new ticketed outdoor stage—and many might ordinarily scoff at a US$127 two-day pass for only local artists, so things had to truly pass muster this time.)

The intent was evident the second Alonso Gonzalez & Jazz Latino took to the stage. The Colombian percussionist is normally found trapped at the back, directing his eponymous Latin Jazz Quintet from behind a drum kit—here he raised a rousing 10-piece, proudly standing front and centre as one of four percussionists, with a quartet of horns to the right and bass and piano to the left. Mounting a tribute to the great Tito Puente, the set was a blissfully nostalgic homage to rhythm—mambo and salsa served slick but fiery, joyous horns blurting over a polyrhythmic cocktail shake, powering the pounding piano's relentless riffage. Covering the American-Puerto Rican legend's relatively obscure "Hong Kong Mambo" was a nice touch, while Australian tenor man Blaine Whittaker turned in some simmering solos up front. Gonzalez's reputation as the city's king of Latin music is beyond dispute—long live the king.

Instead of plodding through the bluesy standards he knows by heart, Eugene Pao—the city's best-known guitarist and artist-in-residence at last year's HKIJF (small scene, much?)—presented an expanded sextet to pay tribute to his own personal hero, Pat Metheny. The group's impressively nuanced takes on "So May It Secretly Begin," "(It's Just) Talk" and "Spring Ain't Here" suggested an unusual amount of time in the rehearsal room for this ever-casual player. Even more practice, however, was evidently spent on prog-ish closer "Spanish Fried Rice," a long knotty fusion original, that twisted and turned through moods and metres with head-scratching poise—and served as a vehicle for some wonderful flamenco wailing. This reviewer has seen Pao rip up a fretboard more times than he can count, but pyrotechnics aside, this performance showed what can be achieved with a broader canvas and a bigger vision. One also likes to imagine Pao newly re-energised after his recent debut US tour, a government-sponsored affair which kicked off at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center—certainly these kind of conceptual heights and compositional sleights were somewhat side-lined during the recording of the new release Comfort Zone (2022, Jazz World Records), the guitarist's first album in 20 years, which sticks too well to its theme at times.

Perhaps no artist has grown more over the festival's tenure than Daniel Chu. This reviewer first spotted the precocious pianist playing in an organ duo, at an after-hours bar gig as part of Freespace's inaugural edition—two years later, the twenty-something talent was invited to headline a theatre alongside a nine-piece string section that he spontaneously conducted live, as part of an audacious "loop station" concept. For 2022, he was promoted to closing the main paid-for stage.

An honour, perhaps, but Chu was evidently not phased, rocking an as-ever outlandish outfit and flapping flamboyantly behind the keys while directing an arena-ready eight-piece band as tight as it was smooth. While there were moments of fire—an opening fusion workout and a groovy Yellowjackets cover got pulses moderately pumping—the set quickly settled into a grab-bag of easy crowd-pleasers that showcased little of the spontaneous flair we associate with Brand Chu: after a smooth sax instrumental, sultry Filipino guest vocalist Jill Vidal took the mic for safe takes on Erykah Badu's "Back in the Day (Puff)" and the sugary closer, Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)."

Chu's sheer joy in his work is infectious, and he demonstrates a confident command throughout. So if adding "pop band leader/arranger" to his ever-growing list of achievements was the goal, then mission accomplished. But writing for a jazz title one can't help feeling a little disappointed there wasn't more of his improvisatory impulse on display this evening— especially in contrast to the sheer ingenuity of his solo piano work.

The great drummer Nate Wong used the pandemic lull to conceive and develop a new project, the cheekily titled Good Funk Shui. The perpetually boiler suit-clad figure must be the SAR's best-known percussionist, equally recognised as a founder of overblown "cinematic" Cantopop band Nowhere Boys, and his stunning acoustic jazz quintet Wong Way Down. In a sense, the new venture bridges these two worlds, applying a musically astute funk-fusion filter to otherwise deliberately lightweight material—although if he had to pick a camp, this is a pop band at heart. Wong is a sucker for a tidy hook, and has a clear penchant for smart, nod-wink wordplay—the result is a perky pop stew, littered with copious flute solos and cutesy, catchy choruses, which sometimes feel like they're never going to end.

With live music harem for much of the band's genesis, this new-old project has never had a proper coming out party—so Wong used the Freespace project to surprise-announce its debut album Good Feng Shui. Many of the LP's evergreen tunes however will be familiar to anyone who's haunted the drummer on the semi-official jam scene of late. Maybe context is king, but it sometimes felt these folksy, idiosyncratic vignettes—"Do You," "Darkside," "Melatonin Instead"— worked better as the quirky acoustic jams they probably began as, rather than the spotlight-flashing, horn-blaring arena take unveiled here. Notably, Cantopop star Phil Lam was invited onstage for that added dose of theatrics.

Shortly after the curtain went down on Freespace 2022, the city's main indie music festival, Clockenflap, announced its return in March 2023—after a four-and-a-half year absence. Surely this is a sign that, a year after the rest of the world, Hong Kong has finally turned a corner and international artists are both able and comfortable to visit again. This bodes very well for Freespace, which at its landmark fifth edition can hopefully finally present the big-name international spectacle its organisers have been dreaming of all along. But when the floodgates open, the city would do well not to forget the greatest pandemic lesson of all—we got good players, too.

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