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

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

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

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



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