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Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 1-3, September 25-27, 2011

Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 1-3, September 25-27, 2011

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Hong Kong International Jazz Festival
Hong Kong
September 25-October 2, 2011

Jazz Festivals in Hong Kong have, until recently, had a checkered history. The very first Hong Kong Jazz Festival was held in 1987 and was an import of the Japanese-sponsored Live Under the Sky series of concerts which, on any given night, would throw up trumpeter Miles Davis and the Sun Ra Arkestra on the same spangled-costumed bill. The Hong Kong Jazz Festival lasted five years before folding, a victim of the Japanese economic downturn of '92. Just a couple of years later, the two-day Hong Kong International Jazz and Blues Festival was born, organized by the Hong Kong Jazz Club, but unfortunately it failed to attract sponsors and died at birth, after just one edition.

That was it for the next decade, until the Hong Kong Jazz Association ran a three-day festival in 2005. About 10,000 people turned out to watch mostly Asian groups—a notable success—though it would be another three years before Hong Kong would host a jazz festival again. In 2008, with the all-important support of private investors, the enthusiasts of the Hong Kong Jazz Association launched the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, and in some style. The event ran for seven days across Hong Kong, in major concert halls as well as clubs. This format has proven to be successful, and continues to this day. The HKIJF is in better health than ever for its fourth edition in 2011; in addition to private sponsorship, it received the support of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, perhaps in recognition of the importance of cultural events in promoting tourism, as Hong Kong aims to situate itself as the events capital of Asia.

For this edition, the 2011 HKIJF has grown to eight days, and featured over 40 performances from 300 musicians. With a lineup including guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Nguyen Le, Scandinavian bands In The Country and the Bjorn Solli Trio, plus the latest piano trio sensation, Rosconi, HKIJF can certainly claim to be a modern-thinking festival. But in addition to a nicely varied musical program featuring artists from Cuba, France, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Malaysia, Brazil and the Czech Republic, there were also a number of exciting Chinese groups, both from Hong Kong and mainland China.

The first day featured five free concerts in the fantastic setting of the amphitheater in the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, facing the emblematic skyline of Hong Kong Island. The view behind the stage was entertainment in itself, with boats of all shapes and sizes passing up and down the stretch of water against the backdrop of the towering Hong Kong Island skyline; and tugboats pulling barges laden with cargo containers bound for the port, where mounds of similar red and blue containers formed a symmetrical landscape of town-like proportions. Launches, police boats, giant crane barges, oceangoing ships, tourist cruisers, small, ugly mutts and the city's last remaining junk made their respective ways hither and thither. Cloud-choked skies did their best to dampen the occasion, but in spite of intermittent rain showers throughout the afternoon and early evening, the enthusiastic crowd simply put up its umbrellas and kept on cheering.

The festival officially got under way with the arrival of the 30-strong Pegasus Vanguard Marching Band and, after a series of brief speeches from major sponsors, the stage was given over to the Wilson Lam Trio (right). A jazz guitarist of the old school, Lam's economical style comes from a line which echoes Jim Hall and the jazzier trios of Pat Metheny. With bassist Chan Kam Ming and drummer Anna Fan providing a solid, alert rhythm section, the trio ran through a mid-tempo set comprised largely of covers. The slow-paced opener had a gently swinging groove, and it was immediately apparent that Lam is a technically impressive guitarist with a keen ear for melody and an advanced harmonic sensibility.

Throughout the set, the music climbed slowly but surely to little climaxes, to then scale slowly down the reverse slope, seducing the audience as opposed to attempting a knockout blow. Lam's solos were engaging though never flashy, and there was lyricism in abundance in his playing. A reasonably faithful interpretation of Metheny's "Bright Size Life" saw Lam unleashing fluid, melodic lines, and Miles Davis' "Solar" was the perfect set-closer, the trio giving a personal, clearly heartfelt interpretation. Lam may not be Hong Kong's most internationally visible guitarist—that accolade belongs to Eugene Pao—but with a bit of support he clearly has the talent to go a long way,

Next up was Trio D'en from France. Formed in 2003, the three musicians have played with some of France's historic jazz figures such as reed players Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis. Whilst the trio exhibited an undoubtedly strong grounding in the jazz tradition, it veered towards free/avant exploration at times, without sacrificing melody or rhythm. The trio stumbled out of the blocks with an improvisation-cum-sound check, which saw tenor saxophonist Arnaud Rouanet unfurl knotty yet rousing lines in a dialogue with drummer Yoann Scheidt, as pianist/keyboardist Samuel Bourille fine-tuned the piano's wiring.

Arnaud Rouanet

Rouanet and Scheidt found a groove and milked it, with Scheidt vocalizing the motif. Bourille's tuning rather seamlessly became one with the improvisation, his heavy piano chords adding rhythmic weight before the others dropped out, leaving him to solo. Alternating between light and heavy touch, Bourille built an elegiac and hypnotic groove. Rouanet rejoined, first on tenor and then on clarinet, accompanied by Scheidt on trombone. Rouanet and Bourille engaged in a delicate exchange, with the clarinet evoking a Turkish melancholy. This episodic opener was an appetizer for the trio's unorthodox, inventive approach to music.

Rouanet used to perform with Graphiose—a band dedicated to the music of guitarist/composer Frank Zappa—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was an element of the theatrical about the performance. On a piece called "Down Frisell!," dedicated to guitarist Bill Frisell, Rouanet used various objects for their sound effects—a metronome and, rather more effectively, a small loudspeaker and a number of small pots and pans used as percussive instruments combined with electronic keyboard distortions which sang like guitar feedback. Rouanet's tenor sidled up slowly and moodily, and in truth, there was a brooding quality to the composition which recalled the mood of Frisell's Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001).

The closing number began with the trio leading the audience through a tricky hand-clapping rhythm (which few mastered) to the sounds of Rouanet improvising through his mini-loudspeaker; his improvisation sounded like a cross between the ranting of a good old-fashioned dictator, an opera diva and bird song, and it was curiously engrossing. From there to a delightful Brazilian samba groove emanating from keyboards, with Scheidt laying down a light but driving rhythm, Rouanet took an extended, dancing saxophone solo which was part Gato Barbieri and part Manu Dibango. A lively percussive give-and-take between Rouanet and Scheidt—employing mallets on the pots—gained the audience's approval and crowned a hugely enjoyable and equally impressive set.

From left: Oscar Lorient Vedey, Alexander Rodriguez Cala

Cuba's Estudiantina Ensemble was formed by singer/guitarist Ricardo "Aristides" Bekema with the aim of preserving the danzón music of Santiago de Cuba, with roots dating back to the 19th century. This seven-piece band gave an energetic performance which didn't quite manage to blow away the rain that was falling steadily, but the audience didn't seem to mind and gave enthusiastic support to these veteran musicians. Led by the charismatic Oscar Lorient Vedey, the band, which consisted of two guitars, bass, trumpet and percussion, played a feisty set which scored points with the audience for "Historia de un Amor," "Ya No Estas a Mi Lado" and Mexican pianist/songwriter Consuelo Velázquez's eternal classic, "Besame Mucho."

The Aseana Percussion Unit, aka APU, has been going since 1998, and has grown from its original four members to its present incarnation of ten. Although the band has only recorded two CDs in that time, it as performed at some of the most prestigious music festivals throughout the region, including the Rainforest Music Festival in Borneo. Hailing from Malaysia, the different ethnic backgrounds of its members is reflected in the wide range of instruments employed. Malay, Indian and Chinese percussion instruments, traditional bass and drum kit combined with keyboards, fiddle, congas, shakers, djembe, surdo and saxophone, all in a swirling, heady cocktail which won huge approval from the audience.

"World Dance Rhythm" which opened the set, was aptly titled, as in the first thirty seconds of the number the audience was transported from China, via Chen Kam Chien's keening suona—a double-reed wind instrument with a flaring bell—to the Australian outback with a touch of didgeridoo—and, improbably, to the Celtic corner of northern Europe, as Sanjiv Daevin took a Scotts-Irish sounding fiddle turn, with the reed and wind section providing a bagpipe-type drone. All the while, bassist Jude Fernandez Theodore Fernandez and drummer Edwin Nathaniel kept a tremendously funky groove going. An interlude of konnakol from tabla player Kirubakaran led into sax and Chinese flutes, and by then the pot was well and truly boiling.

Foreground from left: Sanjiv Daevin, David Victor

Vocalist Sirisena David Victor was an energetic and charismatic front man who never stopped dancing throughout the set. His swinging rendition of "Caravan," by Puerto Rican trombonist/composer Juan Tizol, was a set highlight. At one point, Victor extracted saxophone-like sounds from a simple hair comb—which, on the evidence of his shiny dome, he had evidently borrowed. "Quando Quando Quando," which segued into trumpeter Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World," was also a crowd pleaser. Now resident in Hong Kong, former APU member Jaggu joined the band onstage to rekindle old flames and led the ensemble through some lively Punjabi rap. The vibrant set concluded with "Malaysian Rainbow," from Colours of Rhythms (Capricorn Connection, 2002), which featured a yearning Indian vocal intro and a rousing finale, with all ten musicians in a row, pounding out rhythms on a variety of instruments for all they were worth.

The final performance on the first day of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival was Beijing funk/electronic outfit Gao Hong Zhang & Acid Live. It is however, no easy task to hang a name on its eclectic fare. A funk rhythm section of bassist Liu Zang and drummer Da Wei kept a steady groove, with Zang particularly dynamic. Keyboardist Zhang Zhang was impressive, laying down dark, funky sounds inspired by '60s electro funk-rock. Guitarist Wen Xiang also impressed with his flowing jazz lines and irresistible funk riffs. Extra sonic and visual effects were added by DJ Christopher Cook and VJ Chew Weng Yeow, though the video screen was a tad small to really create much of an impression for the slowly changing images.

The not-so-secret weapon of the band was vocalist Gao Hong Zhang. Dressed in an ankle-length, one-piece animal fur coat, and with large, hooped earrings hanging from the ears of his cue-ball head, he looked as if he had just come off the set of the Japanese television series The Water Margin and still had the smell of blood in his nostrils. Singing in Cantonese, Zhang's incredibly powerful—and quite soulful—vocals and his beguiling stage presence as an ancient warrior brought another dimension to the music entirely. Innovative and tremendously funky, the modern urban aesthetic of Acid Jazz went hand-in-hand with roots music, which like so much music, essentially stems from blues.

Day two of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival began with the first of a series of presentations entitled "In Dialogue with Jazz," held in the Tom Lee Academy Hall. The opening talk, delivered in Cantonese by Hong Kong International Jazz Festival Director Peter Lee, was simply titled Jazz Appreciation, and provided a potted history of the development of jazz in the United States of America, with analysis of the musical components of jazz. Lee has been a tireless advocate and promoter of jazz in Hong Kong and regionally for many years, and through the Hong Kong Jazz Association has also held numerous workshop, course and Artists-in-Residency programs. Lee describes the HKJA as "a bunch of dreamers," yet the throwaway comment cannot disguise the fact that the dream has become a reality—and one that is gaining increasing currency as an important part of Hong Kong's cultural panorama.

The evening concert was performed by the Simin Tander Quartet, in the delightful inner courtyard garden of Vibes, a very hip Hong Kong destination in the luxurious Myra Hotel. Tander, of German-Afghan background, is a relative newcomer to the international jazz scene, though already she seems to be making some waves. Backed by a tight trio of drummer Etienne Nillesen, bassist Conrad Heineking and pianist Lucas Leidinger, Tander delivered a captivating set which drew from her impressive debut, Wagma (Neu Klang, 2011).

Tander opened the set with the title track, an atmospheric number sung in Pashtu, with Tander's gently seductive melody gradually gaining in potency, the piano maintaining a motif while Nillsesn roamed freely, sounding damped cymbal shots here and there to great effect.

The lyrics, as much as the melody, of Michel Legrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind" seemed tailor-made for Tander (left); the combination of the poetic ("like the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream") and the surreal ("the world is like an apple whirling silently in space") summed up Tander's unique vocals, which draw from diverse sources both linguistically and stylistically. Whether singing in Pashtu, Spanish or English, or her own striking improvised language, Tander was both lyrical and challenging.

On occasion, as during "Becoming," Tander's improvisations recalled Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, though the language was her own. The trio demonstrated skilful interplay, raising and lowering the tension and altering the dynamics in subtle yet striking ways. Pianist Leidinger—playing only his second gig with the quartet—gave an assured performance and, when given rein, demonstrated fine chops. His solo on an Al Jarreau number was particularly soulful, though the song was most memorable for an improvised exchange between Tander and Nillesen, with the drummer dropping lots of bass pedal bombs to powerful effect. On "Closed Eyes," Nillesen again caught the eye with his controlled freedom and striking accents.

Tander's dreamlike rendition of singer/songwriter Nick Drake's "Riverman," with Nillesen on brushes, was a nicely intimate interlude. A composition penned by Heineking, featured a lyrical bass intro, before developing into a feature for piano, Tander loosely mirroring the lovely bass melody in a strong number. The slow bolero, "Obssession," saw Tander switching to Spanish, brooding one minute and passionate the next. A lament , "Between the Bars," closed an absorbing set on another intimate note. Tander is a singular talent; her obvious vocal strengths and commanding stage presence, with excellent trio support, made an impression on the small but appreciative audience, and she is clearly a name to watch out for.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to make the only concert of the day, the Irene Atman Quartet, at the Mira, as the time clashed with one in the series of In Dialogue With Jazz talks. "Jazz in South East Asia," brought together a panel consisting of three regional jazz festival directors: Paul Augustin of the Penang Island Jazz Festival, Santi Wonsawat of the Samui International Jazz Festival in Thailand, and Atsuko Yahsima of the Tokyo Jazz Festival. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of South East Asian geography will know that Japan does not fall in that region, but nobody was quibbling with the opportunity to gain an insight one of Asia's most prestigious jazz festivals.

From left: David Miller, Atsuko Yashima, Santi Wongsawat, Paul Augustin

Broadly speaking, the talk centered around the challenges of setting up and running a sustainable jazz festival in Asia, though moderator David Miller—former Director of Operations and Finance at San Francisco Jazz— summed up the feelings of the panel: "It's been said that you can make a small fortune in running a jazz festival as long as you start off with a large fortune in the first place." Yashima, whose Tokyo Jazz Festival celebrated its 10th edition this year, gave a presentation on the tsunami, its aftereffects in the worst affected areas, and the efforts of jazz musicians to help boost peoples' moral.

In a short segment of a mini-documentary, keyboardist Bob James came to Japan and gave a recital of his specially composed piece of music with musicians from Iwate, which was devastated by the tsunami. It was clearly an emotional occasion for all those present at the concert. Yahsima recounting how one man had said that he had taken no pleasure from anything in life since the tsunami until that concert, and that it lifted his spirit and encouraged him to go forward. Music alone isn't going to rebuild Iwate but, as this documentary showed, it did go a long way to help bolster the spirit—individually and collectively—of the town. Yashima noted, "I don't think that any other type of music is able to cross boundaries as quickly as jazz," and drew comparison to the jazz community's response in the face of Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked such terrible damage on New Orleans in 2005.

One question which arose from the sole European in the audience was how can European jazz musicians access the Asian jazz festival/touring market. Asia is emerging as a market for European (and American) jazz musicians, with festivals popping up at a rate of knots. In the last ten years, three jazz festivals have sprung up in Malaysia, five in both Thailand and Indonesia, at least four in China, several in Japan, two in South Korea, and other festivals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Mongolia and Azerbaijan. In 2010, the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, an hour or so outside Seoul, drew an audience of 168,000 people, with half the festival program comprised of jazz musicians from Europe and America. Augustin described how festival directors from Asia are bombarded with questions about how bands can get into Asia's jazz market, at European jazz conventions.

One of the key questions for European musicians/agents regards visa and work permit requirements across Asia. Augustin suggested that a tour of key European/American cities by a panel of Asia's jazz festival directors, in order to provide such information, might be of interest for musicians, their agents and managers trying to get a foothold in Asia. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine that such a panel would invite a lot of attention, and it's an idea which European and American jazz festival directors, funding bodies—as well as universities and colleges offering jazz programs—might consider.

What also emerged from the panel discussion was the difficulty in securing sponsors for jazz festivals, and how this has a strong hand in influencing the programming of festivals. Right across the board, throughout Europe and America and Asia, jazz festivals are including other styles of music, and greater diversity to gain broader appeal. Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life, and for jazz festivals—in particular in these uncertain economic times—variety may well mean their very survival, wherever they may be.

Coming up in days four, five and six of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival: In The Country; Maria João & Mário Laginha; the Dainius Pulauskas Group; the Emil Vikilicky Trio; and Blanca Gallice.

Photo Credits
Aseana Percussion Unit: Ian Patterson
Wison Lam: Felix Tam
Arnaud Rouanet, Oscar Lorient, Alexander Rodriguez Cala: Felix Tam
Sanjiv Daevin, David Victor: Felix Tam
Simin Tander: The Mira Hong Kong
All other photos: Ian Patterson

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