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Jazz World Records: From Hong Kong with Love

Jazz World Records: From Hong Kong with Love

Courtesy Andrew Chester Ong

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Seeing the young talent emerging makes me so proud. It has been a long time coming. We need to do something to sustain it before it becomes a flash in the pan.
—Clarence Chang, founder, Jazz World Records
"I've had plenty of labels in the past—three or four, I can't remember—and I always swore I'd never do it again," begins Clarence Chang as he sits down to lunch. And yet here we are, chewing linguine and discussing the label he just founded, Jazz World Records.

"The only true jazz label in HK" proudly claims the new venture's online bio. If creating an indie imprint of any kind is a distinctly brave proposition in 2022, then starting a new jazz label sounds like a certain kind of madness—and doing so in Hong Kong might be cause for calling in a specialist. The best part? Chang knows it. He just doesn't appear to care.

An industry veteran and lifelong music fan, the 60-year-old is driven by the same unadulterated passion that has seen him produce or engineer more than 40 Canto-pop albums, co-found the city's first jazz festival, and present nearly 100 concerts.

Co-founded with audio engineer Kent Poon, Jazz World Records is an offshoot of the local brand Chang has been building for close to two decades; first as a record store importing specialist CDs to the city at a time when no one else did, and later as the Jazz World Live Series, which has brought heavyweights like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Kamasi Washington to the city.

In an era of musical ubiquity, the key to the label's success could prove to be its microscopic focus—exploring a niche within a niche—with its primary goal to showcase a new generation of Hong Kong jazz musicians largely undocumented and unknown beyond the shores of the self-governed Chinese city. "We don't have a lot of money, but nowadays you don't need that. You just make a good plan," Chang adds with characteristic understatement.

However, it's somewhat unsurprising that the label is kicking off with a pair of releases from the city's undisputed elder statesmen: Ted Lo's solo piano outing Words and guitarist Eugene Pao's duo collection Comfort Zone (see capsule reviews below). Both are old friends he's known and worked with for decades; it was Chang who helped secure a guest appearance from Michael Brecker on Pao's major label album Outlet (1990, WEA) when the tenor titan was passing through town.

"Of course I first thought of Eugene," says Chang." And also the first release, I need to sell—Eugene Pao has a good track record in terms of jazz sales in Hong Kong, and he's not made a studio recording for 20 years." Why? "You need to nudge him. He's not an assertive guy to ask for anything."

While Pao hasn't recorded as leader since Pao (2001, Stunt Records), Lo has remarkably never led his own date. "He'd always say, 'Let me think about it,'" says Chang. "This time I said I'm starting a label, So me and Kent both started hassling him."

The label's forward-thinking goals are better reflected in Our Jazz Pianists, a live recording of four Millennial and Gen Z musicians captured onstage at a daylong concert last summer (reviewed here). While there was no intention of creating an album at the time, Poon decided to record the four hours of music for posterity—and the pair soon realised listening back that the four contrasting performances offered as good a primer on the scene as anything they could conjure in the studio.

"Seeing the young talent emerging makes me so proud. It has been a long time coming. We need to do something to sustain it before it becomes a flash in the pan," Chang said, in a social media post announcing the new venture. "A record or CDs may not sell as many units as before, but it remains a strong statement from an artist to the listeners, even after many years from now."

Chang's own career began long before the CD's heyday. After moving to Australia at 17 to finish high school, he stayed on to learn his future craft at the Melbourne School of Audio Engineering. "I didn't want to waste time studying to be an accountant or whatever. I knew that wasn't for me from the start," he remembers.

He returned to a rapidly evolving city in the throes of a pop culture revolution, just in time to enjoy a front-row seat for the musical explosion that became known as Canto-pop. One of his first sessions was engineering and producing the debut album by Beyond, unarguably Canto-rock's best-known band.

"At that time it was a pretty open industry, Canto-pop was starting to grow, I knew some young musicians and they said, 'Let's start something,'" he says. "I could help out with all the musicians, and it didn't cost that much money back then."

But he'd already got the jazz bug after seeing John McLaughlin's One Truth Band live in Australia as a teenager, a musical epiphany that reframed an adolescent hunger for prog-rock. Tellingly, Chang is wearing a King Crimson T-shirt when we meet.

"That was the starting point, but with all the people I know, I find you always end up with [listening to] jazz," he adds. "Classical music leads to pop, and in the end you find jazz. It's what most people I know do." Why? "There's more possibilities. You can listen to the same piece of music, and at different times it gives you different things. That's the way it grows. Nowadays we have a lot of jazz in pop music—the structure, rhythms, the chords—it's quite different to pop music in the '60s. It's more interesting."

Chang founded the Jazz World Records store in 2001, and realised a personal dream as co-founder of the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival in 2008. But after two editions, Chang left the team. The Jazz World Live Series was founded in 2013, chalking up 79 gigs and counting, and Chang has also been called on to programme the annual, government-backed Jazz Marathon events and recently launched the Jazz in the Neighbourhood concert series—with Pao's official album launch no less. "I've always thought: as long as I can break even, I'll do it," he adds.

So, gloves off, in all the scores of international gigs that Chang has hosted, which artist cost him the most?

"Herbie!," he says in a flash, and with a grin. "And then Pat, definitely. Actually I got a very good price for Herbie. I wasn't scared of Chick Corea—I knew him already, I was embedded on a tour in the '80s." Was he ever intimidated? "A little when I met Kamasi—he's very, very like a big cat—I thought he was like a giant, but he was so softly spoken. But I haven't had any artist that was difficult. Ever. Jazz musicians just aren't difficult people."

Jazz World Records releases its first six albums in summer 2022...

Eugene Pao: Comfort Zone

The name sure rings true—Comfort Zone is a series of relaxed, intimate duos which never feels in remote danger of phasing Eugene Pao's road-weary poise. Conceived as the antithesis to a planned orchestral collaboration with the UK's Guy Barker, tipped to premiere at a future London Jazz Festival), the programme sees the regional guitar heavyweight sit down to intimate duos with a revolving cast of four guest instrumentalists—all familiar cohorts of Hong Kong's incestuous jazz scene. Each player was invited in for a day-long session, collectively resulting in four pairs of laid-back and largely acoustic conversations.

The set is bookended with two delicate palate-cleansers alongside harmonica player CY Leo, whose airy tone and high-register playing lends an easygoing backyard vibe to Keith Jarrett's "My Song" and the standard "I Fall In Love Too Easily." But there's meatier turns sandwiched inside: long-term co-conspirator Ted Lo (the subject of the label's second release, reviewed below) plays pretty on Pao's ballad "Everywhere is You," but it's the nuanced interplay to their snappy reading of Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud" that betrays the pair's long friendship.

The self-penned title track is one of two gorgeously intuitive, eight-minute duets with Teriver Chung—the young guitarist surely destined to inherit Pao's crown, if he stays in town. The latter's delicate steel string acoustic work plays a fitting foil to his elder's nylon-strung Jose Ramirez guitar. Most exciting may be the two frenetic duets with Australian double bassist Scott Todd: a delicious slowed-down take on the flamenco fire "Armando's Rhumba" by Corea, and "Make it So," a third original tune that sees Pao switching to his electric PRS for some daring, vertiginous riffing that inches perhaps just a fraction further from the guitarist's titular comfort zone.

Ted Lo: Words

Despite leading a long and storied career begun in 1976 as the first Chinese graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and including stints with Al Kooper, Herbie Mann, Astrud Gilberto and even a year in Ron Carter's early-'80s quartet— Lo has never released a proper album as leader. It's boggling to learn the only other solo release in his oeuvre, 1985's Reflections of Love, was a commissioned "bunch of Chinese melodies in a kind of New-Age style," in Chang's words. The record didn't even feature Lo's name on the cover.

The solo piano Words goes some way to rectifying this historical slight, showcasing not just the keen improvisational prowess Lo has demonstrated on the bandstand since returning to his hometown in 1996, but also his rather more overlooked talents as a composer. Apart from a smart reading of the standard "Alone Together," it's strictly original material on display—and he clearly had lots in the closet to draw from. The delicate "Take A Chance" apparently dates back to the '90s, while the sombre closer "City Falls in Shadow" was directly inspired by the horrors of Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine. The spiralling "Road Never Travels" is a special highlight.

Recorded over two days at Hong Kong's Gig Studio 2, the carefree chatter only increases the sense of intimacy, and with all the tracks clocking in at under six minutes, the set showcases a light but not overindulgent delivery that promotes melody over catharsis. Oh, and why Words? Because music, says Chang, is Lo's language.

Our Jazz Pianists

For a sparkling sample of where jazz piano is in the 2020s, you could do worse than picking up this taster set, which features tracks from four dynamically different piano leaders playing on the same stage on the same day. While Patrick Lui and Bowen Li explore the different soundscaping possibilities of the acoustic trio, it's Joyce Cheung's string-ornamented chamber jazz conceptions and Daniel Chiu's unaccompanied exorcisms that are most likely to thrill international ears.

There was a clear and bold intent behind Chu's decision to close his performance with local anthem "Below the Lion Rock," which unravells here over several minutes, while Cheung's "Come and Go" unfolds a heartbreaking storyboard for the mind, or perhaps the soundtrack to a film not yet made. Elsewhere Lui's trio work deftly skirts through the taut funk and knotty, alternating time signatures of collaborator Alex Sipiagin's "Videlles," while Li transforms Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream" into a yearning sigh, pregnant with the weight of passed years, underlining just how far the world still has to go.

European Classics Series

As well as showcasing Hong Kong's talent to the world, Chang is also using his new imprint to offer licensed audiophile-quality reissues of some of his favourite European jazz releases of the modern era, opening the series with a trio of Japanese-pressed HQCDs.

"These are the titles that used to sell well in my shop! And they're very well recorded—sonics are a big deal for audiophiles," says Chang. "And they're albums with nice melodies."

So what do we get from the first round of drops? Former Ennio Morricone collaborator Enrico Pieranunzi re-interpreted his employer's work on Play Morricone (CAM Jazz, 2001), the first of two volumes which paired the Italian pianist alongside visiting Americans Marc Johnson and Joey Baron to strip back the legendary composer's film themes to stunning effect. Read John Kelman's 4.5-star review of the title or Chris May's equally glowing appraisal here.

Sticking with the film soundtrack theme, bassist Giovanni Tommaso and trumpeter Enrico Rava co-lead the perkier La Dolce Vita (CAM Jazz, 2000), another airy European deconstruction of familiar film themes alongside pianist Stefano Bollani and bassist Roberto Gatto. Read John Kelman's 4.5-star review here, and Jim Santella's only slightly more tempered thoughts here.

Last in the first flurry of re-releases is The Songs Remain the Same an excellent acoustic trio date by the Italian supergroup Doctor 3— a personal favourite of Chang's—that sees the pianist Danilo Rea, bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and drummer Fabrizio Sferra stride effortlessly between all manner of popular and folk songs in a series of studious, seamless medleys.

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