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

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

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-8

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.



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