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Hong Kong International Jazz Festival 2018

Rob Garratt By

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Jerry Bergonzi has developed the reputation as an 'insider’s' player, yet his approach is assertive but never unnecessarily abstract–unafraid, but not oblique.
Hong Kong International Jazz Festival
Hong Kong City Hall Theatre; Hong Kong Cultural Centre
October 7-13, 2018

"There are so many beautiful players in the world... and so few listeners," announced Jerry Bergonzi somberly from the stage, to a smatter of chuckles. That punchline might be flipped on its head in Hong Kong, where there is no shortage of upmarket bars in the Central district programing at least some semblance of "jazz," but just a small roster of pro players gigging on ready rotation, which is why the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival is such a relative treat. Still, ten acts over four bills is an admittedly modest offering for an international hub of HK's might, cosmopolitanism and affluence.

Playing the final night—and with a garish illustrated facial likeness plastered on every flyer —American sax titan Bergonzi was the de facto headliner and undisputed highlight, barreling through an 80-minute set which had the air of a rootsy masterclass in small group traditionalism in comparison with the preceding three nights of modern, world and fusion flavors. And it was an intensely distilled dose, the sound of a straight acoustic quartet playing with a ferocious confidence, painting an old-school Renaissance portrait in the big, bold brushstrokes and primary hues of Pop Art. Opener "Blue Cube" was a tectonic slumber, lumberingly driven by bassist Johnny Åman, while "Double Bill" cheekily cast Bill Evans the standard "Blue in Green" as a skittish bop workout in 20 bar, not 10, form.

Despite battling with a faulty octave key, 70-year-old Bergonzi's playing was sublime throughout, possessing the fluidity, power, grace and swagger of a prize fighter just getting warmed up. The first movement of his "The Seven Rays" suite, ripped asunder from the whole, brought out some of the tenor man's fiercest phrasing, unleashing furious flurries of triplets that left me thinking of Sonny Rollins, while drummer Anders Mogensen and pianist Carl Winther traded some wonderful staccato statements built upon the song's frenetic head.

Perhaps because of his enduring role as an educator, Bergonzi has developed the reputation as an "insider's" player, yet to these ears his approach is assertive but never unnecessarily abstract —unafraid, but not oblique. Moreover, the former Dave Brubeck sideman has the curious habit of bee-lining stage right, two bars before wrapping every solo —turning off the tap when we all know he has so much more to say.

It's perhaps fortunate that the band which proceeded Bergonzi on Saturday October 13 didn't feature a horn —with HKIJF welcoming the Asia debut of Canadian-American quartet B's Bees, who served a satisfying set that largely trod the hard bop idiom. At its centerpiece sat "Kanata," a monolithic, four-part suite composed by leader/drummer Brandon Goodwin inspired, the leader said, "by the history of Canada," which also serves as the title track of its third album. Live, the piece spun to three times the CD version's length, breaking the 30-minute mark, segueing between spells of moody riffing and restrained, unaccompanied solo showcases -with the spooky slides, drones and chords of Alec Safy's bass-work especially memorable.

Politics also splattered the canvas of the set's sole cover, a moody modal workout on Charlie Haden's Spanish Civil War ode "If You Want to Write Me" —which played to the shrill, clean Bill Frisell-esque Telecaster tone of guitarist Julien Sandiford—while pianist Joe Ferracuti contributed "Refuge," a ballad peppered with some angular Thelonious Monk-ish turns. The rest of the quartet's original material toed too close to the beloved hard bop/Blue Note aesthetic to be truly original.

Beyond this bop-based, North American closing double header, HKIJF offered a wholehearted tribute to that most symmetrical of improvisational vehicles —the ever-reinventing-itself jazz trio, with the first three of its six headline acts all strictly acoustic, but stridently forward-facing, European piano-bass-drums affairs.

Gorgeously colored by chiming piano percussion, cello-esque bowed bass and shimmering cymbal work, the Kari Ikonen Trio exemplify a distinctly Scandinavian collective work ethic —where solos neither end nor begin, but bleed into the collective whole. It's the kind of meditatively pastoral, post-ECM sound-scaping which can't help but evoke real-life landscapes—so it's fitting their leader/composer appears to take such deep inspiration from dramatic climates.

Drawing liberally from the trio's excellent third CD Wind, Frost & Radiation (Ozella, 2018) over Thursday's headline slot, the effortless lyrical opener "Kuro" is named after a valley in the north of Finland, while "Pripyat" hopes to evoke the Ukrainian ghost town left to the ravages of nature following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 —spookily marked by bassist Olli Rantala disorientingly descending a full octave in a slowly bowed meter.

A response to Debussy's impressionistic masterpiece "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" —and opener of the Finnish trio's penultimate release Beauteous Tales and Offbeat Stories (Ozella Music, 2015)—pianist Kari Ikonen's "L'avant-Midi D'une Elfe," begins with rolling, lyrical keywork that calls to mind rippling rapids or shimmering raindrops. Apparently inspired by the seasonal winds which blow from the Sahara through West Africa and into the Gulf of Guinea, "Harmattan" is just Ikonen's most memorable use of string muting, striking a hypnotic African-flavored pentatonic riff, before transmorphing into a morbid, metal-esque strut. The dampened strings which again punctuate "Beatamente" meanwhile recall the regular chime of a clock, or perhaps a church bell.

Seasoned jazz fans may of course take all this reality-conjuring with more than a whiff of skepticism, knowing how difficult musicians typically find it to name instrumentals —and the endearing audience appeal of segueing between otherwise dense, challenging music with charming explanatory tales. On the face of his introduction, it's seems that Ikonen has never visited Pripyat (and one wonders if his familiarity with the winds of West Africa came from a documentary). But it's the art that counts, not the intent —and Ikonen, a former winner of Finland's Jazz Musician of the Year award, is a serious artist making work with a color and conviction worthy of any of today's leading European three-pieces, of which there was another to seep into.
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