Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 7-8, October 1-2, 2011

Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 7-8, October 1-2, 2011

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Hong Kong International Jazz Festival
Hong Kong, China
September 25-October 2, 2011
Hong Kong is, without a doubt, one of Asia's most iconic cities, with views from the upper levels of its numerous skyscrapers which really take the breath away. Watching the lights gradually come on from the best vantage points just before sunset is an unforgettable experience. Finding a suitable outdoor area to host a jazz festival is more of a challenge, but the festival organizers couldn't have dreamed of a better venue for the final two days of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival. For the first time, the music was staged on the grounds of the West Kowloon Cultural District. With the Circle Stage right at the mouth of Victoria Harbor and the Square Stage and smaller Mobile Stage looking out at the South China Sea—and a myriad of sea vessels great and small—it was an ideal location for an outdoor music festival, and one whose setting made a noticeable impression on musicians and foreign visitors alike.

The penultimate day of HKIJF 2011—Chinese National Day to boot— began with one of the most brilliant a capella groups on the current scene, the German vocal sextet, Stouxsingers. The group—founded by Michael Eiman—enjoys a loyal following in Europe and Asia, and has won awards in jazz and pop categories alike. Should the band break in the United States, it will no doubt be a contender for R&B, rap and soul awards, as it's all there in the mix, which this concert amply demonstrated.

It's not all glamour being an international touring act. The Stouxsingers performed the opening slot at 2 p.m., having landed at Hong Kong International Airport a mere four hours before. And half a dozen hours after their show, the six members were set to fly to Seoul for a 2 a.m. Party Stage gig at the Jarasum International Jazz Festival. It's all in a day's work for the Stouxsingers. There were, however, no signs of jet lag during a terrifically energetic performance, a potent reminder of the possibilities of that most personal of instruments, the human voice.


With a rhythm section of "drummer" Karsten Muller and "bassist" Thomas Piontek powering the unit with considerable swing and funk, lead vocals were shared between Eiman, Katharina Debus, Gregorio Hernandez and Konrad Zeiner. The Beatles' "All My Loving" began the show, and featured a convincing duet between Zeiner imitating a trombone and Eiman imitating a trumpet. On the self-penned "Du Bon Son," Zeiner did a passable imitation of a Frenchman, though in truth he does a better trumpet.

A large slice of soul funk was served up on singer Al Jarreau's "Boogie Down" and a stirring "Jungle Boogie," complete with elephant roars, Tarzan cry and other typical jungle noises. With one hour to get the crowd's juices flowing, the emphasis was on lively, groove-based material, though the slower "Sometimes It Snows in April" saw the sextet work quite beautiful harmonies on Prince's poignant tune. A highlight of the show was the entertaining "Humanizoo," with the sextet creating the teeming sounds of tropical jungle, complete with didgeridoo effects. Debus stole the honors for solo improvisation of the set, on the band's powerhouse encore, "Funkjoe."

Stouxsingers' innovative, colorful arrangements of a range of popular songs and their undoubted improvisational skills mean that they're just as likely to perform at choral festivals, pop festivals or jazz festivals, as they are a capella festivals. Six voices sounding as one was a reminder, too, that that all other instruments essentially imitate, or channel, the human voice, but none can truly match its emotive power.

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans provided some of the festival's best trumpet playing of the entire eight days. His quartet, Gatecrash, played a set largely drawn from Heavens Above! (Challenge Records, 2010) which ran from upbeat funk to electronic-jazz fusion, and spacier, balladic territory. Vloeimans—who studied under trumpeter Donald Byrd—is a fine technician, and has played with musicians of the caliber of guitarist Nguyen Le, bassist Lars Danilsson, and drummer Joe La Barbera among others. However, it was his emotive range and compositional strength which impressed most. The feel-good set opener "V-Flow" was hard-grooving, followed by the jazz-funk of "Maceo," with Vloeimans' effects bringing a saxophone tone to his trumpet. The latter number was clearly inspired by former James Brown saxophonist and funk legend, Maceo Parker.

Bassist Gulli Gudmundsson's "Experience" was an impressive number which built slowly from its spacious sound at the beginning, with Vloeimans' trumpet decidedly fragile-sounding, like Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick's, to a denser group sound. Jeroen van Vliet's Fender Rhodes layers and Jasper van Hulten's powerful drumming stirred things up, laying the ground for Vloeimans to unleash a soaring solo. Elements of 1960s-inspired electronic-jazz and bop colored the band's language, and the use of loops, echo, and electronic textures lent a more modern aesthetic. This was particularly evident on the hard grooving "Hyper," inspired by the music of Rotterdam DJ Git Hyper. Trip-hop rhythms and dark Rhodes textures combined with Vloeimans' pretty melodic motif to create a heady cocktail.

Eric Vloeimans

The quartet rounded things off with a ballad, "Images of Washington," with Vloeimans trumpet taking the lyrical vocal part originally sung on the album Gatecrashin' (Challenge Records, 2007) by Fay Lovsky. There was real warmth in Vloeimans' delivery, and his solo ended with a lovely bent note. In a recording career stretching back almost twenty years, Vloeimans has tended to recruit different musicians for each new recording project. However, this quartet has been together for four years or so, and in van Vliet, Gudmundsson and van Hulten, Vloeimans has exactly the kind of cohesive, intuitive musicians he needs to best showcase his exciting, original music.

With three stages hosting bands simultaneously, it wasn't possible to catch every act. Over on the Circle Stage the quartet of Blanca Gallice opened the penultimate day, followed by Hong Kong singer Ginger Kwan, the Simin Tander Quartet—this time with a grand piano—and the Alexander Cunha Group from Brazil. The third and smallest stage, the Mobile Stage, hosted three local bands, Hi-Tone, Young Cats Quartet and RUM. And from morning until sunset, the tireless Pegasus Vanguard Marching Band went back and forth between the Square and Circle stages, adding their own spirit to the festival.

Some of the local musicians were unhappy with the Mobile Stage—a small, pavilion-type setup on the pathway between the two larger stages—and, as the South China Morning Post reported—one musician refused to play, complaining at the lack of a suitable protective cover in case of rain. TV and print journalists descended on the Mobile Stage, a curious show of interest in a festival which otherwise received little, if any, in-depth media coverage. A number of musicians said—unsurprisingly—that they would have preferred to play on the larger stages. It was all a bit of a storm in a teacup, but surely the chance to add the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival to one's CV would have been cause for celebration for musicians, most of whom have yet to record CDs and many of whom don't have regular gigs in town or a MySpace page.

Mobile Stage

There was a healthy percentage of musicians from Hong Kong or the mainland at HKIJF 2011. The festival organizers deserve a pat on the back for promoting the likes of Wilson Lam, Acid Live, Ginger Kwan, SIU2 and half a dozen lesser known (for now) local bands. Maybe the media could help promote local musicians at next year's festival by printing interviews and profiles in the weeks running up to the event. At the end of the day, musicians—no matter how talented—have to work their way up from the bottom; American jazz musicians call it "paying your dues." While the organizers will doubtless study ways to improve the festival for the next edition, the media can also play a more constructive role in helping these aspiring young musicians onto bigger and greater stages.

The early evening began with guitarist Nguyen Le's Saiyuki, an ambitious musical adventure which united the rhythms of India with traditional Japanese music and Le's own inimitable idiom on electric guitar. Mieko Miyazoki on koto (Japanese zither) and vocals, tabla player Prabhu Edouard, and Le have been playing together since 2009, and there was a very strong chemistry at work during a constantly engaging performance. Le's choice of the name Saiyuki—based on Wu Cheng'en's 16th century Chinese novel, "Journey to the West"—is a symbol of Le's personal quest to seek the bonds that unite different branches of music.

This is nothing new for any of the three. Miyazaki's cross-cultural adventures have seen her apply the koto to the music of European classical composers Bach, Debussy and Chopin, record an album of pianist Bill Evans' music, and perform with a Corsican choir. Edouard has played with a host of classical Indian musicians, contemporary dancers, and jazz musicians such as saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Mario Linginha. Le has a long and eclectic musical history, fusing jazz with traditional Vietnamese instrumentation in his mid-'90s band, Tales from Viet-Nam. When three such open-minded virtuosos combine their respective talents, the music, as was the case this evening, is as beautiful as it is unclassifiable.

Nguyen Le

Although most of the songs were from the trios' debut release, Saiyuki (Act, 2009), the show began with the unreleased "Magic Constant," which served as an appetizer for what was to come. Zither, tabla and guitar weaved in and out of each other's slipstream in a beautifully conversant meeting between east and west Asia. Although the electric guitar is hardly synonymous with Asian culture, Le's singing lines contained the unmistakable tonalities of his Vietnamese roots. The striking curves of Le's guitar—specially designed by his luthier—are inspired by Chinese calligraphy.

The wonderfully upbeat "Sangam" and the konnakol-led "Sweet Ganesh" brought to mind the spirit of guitarist John McLaughlin's Shakti/Remember Shakti groups, with Prabhu leading the crowd step-by-step through rudimentary konnakol, to everyone's delight. Miyazaki's beguiled on the former, constantly moving the bridges on her zither and bending the strings to produce a cascade of beautiful sounds. Le, a sensitive accompanist, coaxed Indian colors from his strings as Prabhu's lyrics spoke of the joy of playing music for and with each other. As all three musicians stretched out, a strong wind blew dry ice around the musicians, creating the illusion that this music was indeed, from the heavens.

The Miyazaki composition, "Izanagi Izanami"—as related by Miyazaki— tells the story of the creation of a god, and Miyazaki and Prabhu exchanged vocals which represented seemed to represent lovers' coupling. Miyazaki's voice, rising in pitch and strength had an orgasmic quality. I asked her after the show if this was the case: "Maybe." She said. "Maybe?' I asked. "'Maybe' in Japanese means 'yes'" she replied, laughing. All the while a storm was brewing, which although not of typhoon proportions, nevertheless added to the intensity of the performance. Nguyen Le's Saiyuki gave an electrifying performance at the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival and one can only hope that this singular, genre-defying trio will continue on its musical quest for a long time to come.

Poncho Sanchez

Conguero Poncho Sanchez's Latin jazz ensemble paid tribute to two of the founders of the genre, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and conguero Chano Pozo. A Sanchez original, "El Conguero" opened the set in buoyant style, with the leader raising a sweat and trumpeter Ron Francis Blake unleashing a flurry of hot notes in a rousing ensemble descargar. "Psychedelic Blues" was dedicated to another Latin giant of percussion, the late Willie Bobo, with Ron Hardt impressing on a muscular tenor saxophone solo. This number segued into "Guajira" and this time solo space was filled by trombonist Francisco Torres.

Guest trumpeter Terence Blanchard let rip with a pulsating solo on the first Pozo/Gillespie number of the set, "Guachi Guaro." Two more Gillespie classics, "Con Alma" and "Groovin' High" were featured, with Joey De Leon, Jr.'s bongo solo on the former complementing the conga's rhythms in swinging style. For sheer excitement, however, the exhilarating call-and-response exchange between trumpeters Blanchard and Blake at the end of the set—against a backdrop of the National Day fireworks display—had the crowd roaring its approval. There was however, the feeling that the band was only really getting into its stride by the end of the set.

The headliner for the evening was the Freddy Cole Quartet. A couple of weeks shy of 80 years of age, Cole—brother of Nat King Cole—has been quietly steering his own musical course for seven decades, playing the music he loves with little or no regard for fashion or trends. Cole's first hit was in 1952, and along with Tony Bennett and Jimmy Scott he represents the last in a line of jazz crooners. Whilst there were some natural similarities between Freddy Cole and his more famous elder sibling, Nat—not least the set up of guitar and upright bass—Freddy is more of an out and out jazz singer. His fluidity at the piano may have lessened with the years and his voice may have lost some of its power, but he remains an impeccable stylist with a wonderful sense of time, and vocal phrasing which has few peers.

Cole was lent excellent support throughout from his quartet members. Guitarist Randy Napoleon—who has been with Cole four years—peppered the set with fluid, attacking solos which revealed the influence of guitarist Joe Pass. Bassist Elias Bailey has been with Cole six years and injected great swing into his tasteful playing. Drummer Curtis Boyd has played on and off with Cole since 1965 and the veteran time keeper was immaculate throughout the set. Boyd began his career in New York half a century ago with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and has since kept time for singers Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, bassist Richard Davis, saxophonists Jimmy Heath and James Spaulding, and pianists Dr. Billy Taylor and Chick Corea. Although he has never recorded as a leader, he has, to paraphrase Jimmy Heath, walked with giants.

Freddy Cole

The majority of the set comprised standards from the Great American Songbook; "That's All," "I See Your Face Before Me," "How Little We Know," "Where Can I Go Without You?" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" were just a few of the more memorable numbers. Cole left his piano to sing and stood at the edge of the stage where he sang "Tender is the Night," with obvious reverence for the sentiment of the song. Once back at the piano, Cole led the quartet through singer/pianist Billy Joel's melodic ode to love, "Just the Way You Are."

A hugely swinging version of "Send for Me" had some of the swagger of singer/pianist Fats Domino, and pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton's 1924 composition "Jelly Roll Blues," which closed a wonderful set, also had tremendous vitality in the hands of this quartet. The Hong Kong audience was completely seduced by Freddy Cole and his quartet, which was a pleasing reminder that old school vocal jazz is never out of fashion.

The final day of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival featured some great performances, but unfortunately the weather wasn't kind, and a persistent light rain meant that the crowd was a small one throughout the day. But the question remains, what on earth was going on in Hong Kong that was more appealing than a day of quality international live music, drizzle or no drizzle?

Anyone winning music prizes in Norway these days must be up to something good. Guitarist Bjorn Solli won the "Young Norwegian Jazz Musician of the Year" in 2002, and has since relocated to New York. There, Solli has collaborated with the likes of saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland, pianist Orrin Evans, drummer Kendrick Scott, trumpeter Matt Penman, trombonist Ingrid Jensen and bassist Adam Cruz.

Bjorn Solli

The fifteen minute opener, "Waltz for Lyder" offered ample demonstration of Solli's considerable chops and his compositional skills. His unaccompanied introduction mined a blues vein, buoyed by Steinar Nikelsen's bubbling Nord C3 organ and Australian drummer Nick McBride's propulsive rhythms. On an extended solo, Solli exhibited plenty of bite and invention. "Happy Accidents" forged a simple, upbeat groove and allowed plenty of soling space for guitarist and organist. The crowd may have been small, but it was appreciative of the full-hearted performance from this trio. This was Solli's third tour to China and he seemed to feel right at home playing here.

A fast-paced version of the standard, "Without a Song" and an original composition, "Fresh Fruit," featured more evidence of Solli's ability to really burn it up while maintaining a strong melodic sense. McBride's solo, too, earned warm applause. The Bjorn Solli Trio's set was technically impressive and emotionally engaging, and it got the day off to a great start.

Next up on the Circle Stage was local band SIU2. This band could possibly lay claim to being the most original band of the eight days, with its thrilling fusion of Chinese traditional instruments and modern western instruments. SIU2 is led by Ng Cheuk-yin on sheng (Chinese mouth organ), keyboards and percussion, but it's an ensemble which is very much the sum of its parts. Special guest Law's piercing, bell-mouthed suona, (a reed instrument) the shimmering pipes of the sheng, Cass Lam's elegant sanxian (long necked guitar) and Jason Lau's harp-like zheng (zither) combined with Lawrence Tsui's tribal drum beat—from a western kit—and pianist Peter Fan's bold chords, and Siuming Chan's bubbling electric bass on the heady opener, "Open Door."


The episodic "Grand, Grand Victory" saw the sextet adopt varying combinations of instrument, going from trio, to quartet to sextet and creating vivid textures in the process. Suona, drums and Lam's country-ish lines set the ball rolling, to be joined in the fray by sheng and zheng as the music grew bolder. A series of animated duet exchanges followed. Even at its most forceful, there was a strong melodic content to the group sound. This current of lyricism was especially notable on the traditional-sounding intro to "Flower Party," though as each member's voice was added—including a Chinese-sounding cymbal—the cocktail became increasingly more potent, and decidedly anthemic.

Cheuk-yin's organ painted noirish streaks on "Full Moon," a fast-paced, danceable number with a rather funky sanxian motif. At the end of this number, Lam left the stage to make some adjustments to her sanxian, and the crowd was treated to a sheng solo in her absence. Its multiple pipes offer rich harmonic possibilities, and in the hands of a virtuoso like Cheuk-yin it was a joy to behold. With Lam back on stage, the band launched into "Old Drama," which alternated between climactic group expression and a dreamy, pastoral dialogue from sheng and zheng, with minimalist piano contributing to the state of reverie.

Ng Cheuk-yin

The highly melodic "Moonlight Sonata" featured piano waltzing with sheng, and then sheng in turn with sanxian. Lam—a subtle colorist for the most part—took a lovely solo. The encore, "Goodbye Waltz," slowed things down a little, though there was a Zappa-esque complexity in the ensemble's unison playing on the melody. The character of SIU2 is very much the product of Hong Kong; rooted in ancient tradition, yet utterly urbane, dynamic and sophisticated. Its music would make the perfect soundtrack to a gangster movie-cum-love-story set in this storied city.

After the concert, pianist Fan observed ruefully: "I'm a classically trained pianist; how did I get here?" Watching SIU2 perform, there was a sense that the musicians delighted in the original musical space they inhabit, because, as Fan's rhetorical question suggests, what was a constantly surprising, edifying journey for the audience, was perhaps so even for the musicians themselves.

Swiss trio Rusconi's disregard for musical convention has been a breath of fresh air since its debut, Scenes and Scenarios (Sony, 2004). Pianist Stefan Rusconi, double bassist Fabian Gisler and drummer Claudio Struby draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources, ranging from jazz to rock and pop. They produce music which is melodic, rhythmically dynamic and above all exciting. Although there were a couple of numbers from It's a Sonic Life (Sony Music, 2010)—the trio's interpretations of songs of legendary New York indie rock group Sonic Youth—Rusconi is already looking forward, and presented new material scheduled for a winter release.


The concert began with a tumultuous assault on the piano keys, with Rusconi looking more like a drummer as he pounded out block chords intermingled with runs of breathtaking speed. The trio settled into a more relaxed groove on Sonic Youth's "Sunday," with Gisler stating the lovely melody as Rusconi added melodic embellishment. Prepared piano, with a series of pegs damping the strings, and an electronically distorted bowed bass, lent a dreamy air to new composition "Alice in the Sky," a melodically simple, yet brooding number. Rusconi removed the pegs from the piano strings one by one, as though pulling the plugs on the song itself, as it wound gradually down.

"Berlin Blues" featured a slightly warped Bo Diddley-type riff, a strong melodic core and vocal harmonies. Rusconi maintained a left-hand ostinato as his right improvised at both ends of the keys on a short but punchy new composition. The trio was joined by experimental Chinese jazz singer Coco Zhao, whose beat-style poetry and electronically processed voice lay at the core of a power- pop song, driven by Struby's lively drumming.

The final song of an engaging set was Sonic Youth's "Hits of Sunshine;" Zhao's poem "To Be or Not to Be" brought a touch of Gil Scott-Heron to the basic but powerful groove. Rusconi's use of a rubber ball—or bladder?—to extract unearthly screeches from the piano strings, took the music into quasi-psychedelic territory. Like many modern piano trios, Rusconi's has been called the new e.s.t., but trio's unique way of extracting and magnifying the essential elements in songs of simple construction produced powerful, hypnotic grooves and great crescendos of sound which marked it out as an original voice.

The nine-piece, Amsterdam-based band Mdungu kicked up its own storm on stage, with a potent Afro-jazz whose groove-centric rhythms conjured the funk ofJames Brown and the textures of saxophonist Manu Debango's bands. Ghanan Ebou Gaya Mada's powerful baritone voice roared as he belted out rhythms on his sabar, though after the opening couple of numbers he retreated to the back of the stage for most of the performance. A three-piece saxophone front line backed by two guitars, drum, bass and percussion made for a strong group sound, though there were plenty of subtle Afrobeat, ska and jazz undercurrents running through the music.

Koen Caldeway

Main vocal duties were performed by tenor saxophonist David Beukers, who brought the crowd to life with his cajoling stage presence as much as his fine chops. Most of the songs came from the group's debut recording, Afro What!? (Zimbraz, 2009) and dancing was the order of the day. This recording was produced by producer/guitarist Justin Adams and it is no coincidence that the band's music shares the same energy and driving rhythms as other African music projects involving Adams, such as Tinariwen or Adams' collaborations with ritti player Juldeh Camara.

The brass unison playing was a delight and the soloing strong. The best solo of a pulsating set was by baritone saxophonist Koen Caldeway. In spite of the fact that Mdungu can boast only one African, there was still a convincing roots appeal about the music and effervescence in the playing that was irresistible. A great festival band.

Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel—one of jazz's great modern story tellers—has spent a lot of his time these last couple of years playing standards, since the release of Reflections (Wonmusic, 2009). Bassist Eric Revis has been a fairly constant companion on this journey, but the drumming chair has revolved a little. Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott have both supplied rhythmic support, and Hong Kong was treated to the appearance of twenty-year-old Justin Faulkner, a prodigious talent who is surely a star in the making.

Justin Faulkner

Whether on slower numbers like "Darn that Dream" or faster paced tunes like "Nica's Dream," Rosenwinkel endlessly fertile mind burrowed deep inside the material, exploiting and exploring the melodic and harmonic possibilities with obvious relish. Pianist Thelonious Monk has been a repeated source of inspiration for Rosenwinkel, and the athletic, 15-minute interpretation of "Ruby My Dear" was an exercise in constant invention—the guitarist swung from chord to chord with singing, blues-tinged lines and gave the impression that he could get lost inside these tunes forever. Discipline went hand-in-hand with improvisation, however, and Rosenwinkel captured the rhythmic and melodic essence of each song, framing their inherent beauty.

The rhythm section provided compelling support. Revis, with his unhurried, singing voice contrasted with the incendiary approach of Faulkner, though for all the free thinking at play, the trio was tight and swung tremendously. Aside from this trio, Revis has continued to make a name for himself through his work in the quartet of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, but Faulkner is a relative newcomer. The 20-year-old drummer replaced Jeff "Tain" Watts in saxophonist Branford Marsalis' quartet while just 18, which speaks volumes for his talent and maturity. Comparisons with Watts are inevitable, but his busy, powerful drumming brought to mind the great Elvin Jones—a comparison not made lightly. Faulkner's mighty sound is tempered by a subtlety which saw him make multiple changes between sticks, traditional brushes and light, bamboo brushes, depending on the voice he sought in a performance that was exhilarating and endlessly absorbing.

Though Rosenwinkel continues to pursue other projects, and leads his own quartet, he clearly has something special here with this trio. Let's hope it gets the chance to strut its stuff in a studio and to continue to grow in live performance too.

The closing act of the festival was Chico and the Gypsies. Leader Chico Bouchikhi was a founding member of the Gypsy Kings, but has led his own outfit since 1989. No fewer than nine guitars, plus drums, piano and percussion charged through a lively set of rumba Catalana, or flamenco-pop songs, which had the crowd dancing at the foot of the stage. It was a rousing finale to a great day's music, and indeed, a great eight days of music.

The eight days of the 4th Hong Kong International Jazz Festival provided many memorable concerts. With continued backing from government funding bodies, private sponsors and media, the festival will surely go from strength to strength. Although attendance at the outdoor West Kowloon Cultural District was disappointing over the final two days, it is inconceivable that such a perfect festival setting won't become, in time, an essential diary-date for Hong Kong residents, ex-pats and tourist music lovers alike.

Photo Credits
Page 3, Poncho Sanchez: Santa Istvan Csaba
Page 4, Freddy Cole: Santa Istvan Csaba
All other photos: Ian Patterson

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

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