OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012

OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012
Ian Patterson By

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OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival
Shenzhen, China
October 8-23, 2012
The OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival, in Shenzhen, Gaungdong Province, is one of the youngest jazz festivals in China, yet in just two editions it has already established itself as one of the best. Financially, it can't compete with the Shanghai Jazz Festival, which for its 2012 edition attracted renowned jazz artists such as bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Chris Potter and the Yellowjackets. Nevertheless, the quality of the music at the OLJF is not only high, but refreshingly eclectic, and the programming adventurous. Furthermore, in its aim to promote jazz and educate the Chinese public about jazz's history and its protagonists, as well as the current issues that influence and shape the music, the OLJF is perhaps unique among festivals, not only in China, but throughout Asia.

Just a few short years ago there were no jazz festivals in China. Suddenly, however, they seem to be popping up all over the place. Southern China in particular is home to at least eight festivals, all of which have started up inside the last three or four years—though outside of Beijing and Shanghai, there's not much in the way of a jazz scene.

Even Hong Kong-which hosted the fourth Hong Kong International Jazz Festival in October-comes up short according to Ng Cheuk Yin Sheng, player and founder of one of China's most original and progressive bands, the Hong Kong-based SIU2: "Around the world there is dance music, progressive music, house-there are different scenes," he says, "but in Hong Kong we don't have such a thing as a scene in any kind of music." So, why then the sudden appearance of so many jazz festivals in China?

Unlike in Europe and America, where funding for the arts has been severely reduced in recent years from both state and private sources, it seems that in China, sponsors not only have the money to support jazz festivals, but see the marketable potential in a country of 1.3 billion people (20% of the world's population) whose youth are hungry for music so long denied them.

The growth of the economy and rise of the great Chinese megacities is one of the great stories of our times, and Shenzhen is a case in point.

Riding in the passenger seat, enjoying a sight-seeing tour of the city, guided by Fei Teng, [below, left] co-curator of the OLJF along with Fei Tu [below, right], who, whilst no relation, is most certainly a kindred spirit—skyscrapers stretch endlessly every which way you look. Five-lane highways dissect the city. The architecture is modern and often striking. A mass of giant cranes perch atop countless buildings, highlighted against the skyline like a flock of predators from a Jules Verne work of fiction, waiting to swoop. The scale is dramatic. "This was all rice fields thirty years ago," Fei Teng states as a matter of fact.

It's unbelievable, but true. As late as the 1970s, Shenzhen was a town of 30,000 people, farmers mostly, who tended the surrounding rice paddies. Then, in 1979, Shenzhen was declared a Special Economic Zone, due to its strategic position on the coast, just an hour from Hong Kong. Massive Chinese and foreign investment followed. As an experiment in state-controlled capitalism, it has been a resounding success.

A little more than 30 years later, Shenzhen is one of the biggest cities in the Pearl River delta, with an official population of over 10 million people. I was told that this figure is probably very conservative, as there are said to be over 50 million registered mobile phone numbers in Shenzhen. Fei Teng laughs at my incredulity: "Fifty houses are built every day here," he says.

Shenzhen has the world's fourth-busiest container port after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, and is one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world. It's the new China personified-growing at a dizzying speed, high-tech, dynamic and positive. It's also surprisingly green. There are plenty of parks. Trees and flowering bushes line the roads and a veritable army is employed in keeping the streets clean, trimming and pruning the greenery. Motorbikes are banned. Even in the most built-up residential areas, trees hold their own.

The two Fei's used to run a popular blues bar downtown, but the landlord, sensing a killing, bumped up the rent, thereby guaranteeing a different kind of killing- a terminal one for the venue. The privately sponsored OLJF, thankfully, looks like it has legs to run. The festival team is dedicated, the program is musically stimulating, and the venue is idyllic.

OCT stands for Overseas Chinese Town, a thriving economic and cultural zone of Shenzhen, built by returning overseas Chinese in the wake of Den Xiaping's economic reforms. The LOFT is a leafy artistic hub, a neighborhood of interior design studios, art galleries, artists' studios, and art dealers. It's a pedestrian area with plenty of chic terrace cafés and restaurants serving local and regional food. Old Communist-era warehouses and factory-shops have been converted into art spaces, non-profit galleries and a museum. Art, it seems, is everywhere; striking sculptures inhabit the area and many of the buildings' facades have been given a huge face-lift with ingenious paintings, both abstract and nature-inspired. A weekend market sees dozen of stalls selling all manner of hand-crafted art (Western kitsch is popular) from jewelry to individually designed t-shirts, and from mini-guitars to framed pictures of Communist-era art/magazine covers.

It's a thoroughly relaxing and equally inspiring location, as many of the musicians from the first edition of the festival observed: "We still have e-mail contact with many of the musicians from the first OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival," says Tu Fei, "and their enthusiasm for the festival, for the place, gave us the energy to go for number two."

Having spoken with a number of musicians who played the first edition of OLJF, I can vouch that their experience of the festival was unanimously positive. Singer Simin Tander played the inaugural festival as part of a larger tour of China and she observed: "Performing at the OLJF was definitely one of the, or perhaps the highlight of our China Tour. The festival is run by extraordinarily dedicated people with a clear and open-minded vision of what kind of jazz festival they aim to make-a high quality and creative festival in a beautiful and inspiring environment. The young audience was fantastic-really interested in the music and very enthusiastic. Besides this, everything was perfectly organized which made the stay even more wonderful. The OLJF is a special one; it is a place for cultural exchanges and encounters- I hope to be back soon."

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and his band Gatecrash also played the first edition of OLIJF and he is equally effusive in his praise: "It was a marvelous experience, the venue was exciting and the audience was receptive. I had no idea it would be so much fun. For us it's still exotic to perform in China but the Shenzhen organization, small and energetic, made us feel most welcome."

Little wonder then that the organizers feel they're on the right track. The first edition of the OLJF was 12 days long, with two bands performing each evening, and whilst the musical format has remained largely the same, OLJF 2012 has grown from 12 days to 16. The 2012 edition saw a number of gigs played simultaneously, in the main concert hall and just across the way in the comfy surrounds of the Old Heaven Bookstore, which doubles as a funky record and CD shop and a charming café to boot.

Without a doubt, however, the most significant change from the first edition has been the introduction of a series of talks related to all things jazz. There were talks given by Chinese speakers on eight days, with subjects covering the blues, jazz appreciation, independent European jazz labels, a history of Taiwanese jazz from swing to contemporary improvisation, European improvised music, the last 30 years of Chinese jazz, and the pseudo-exoticism of jazz.

As a representative of All About Jazz, the author's talk entitled "Death, Rebirth and the New Revolution: Trends in Jazz in the Last Quarter of a Century" drew a brave crowd prepared to sit through a 2-hour talk in English, translated step-by-step into Chinese. To be honest, two hours-longer than a football match or a movie-was way too long for any of the talks—for the audience, translator and speaker alike. Towards the end I felt a little like Fidel Castro with the bit between his teeth, haranguing a crowd unable to leave. Feedback from the audiences for all the talks was, however, overwhelmingly positive and it's to be hoped that this educational side to the OLJF will continue, though perhaps in a shorter format.

The music staged at the OLJF covered a very broad range, as is almost the norm at jazz festivals these days. The organizers, however, deserve credit for the adventurous nature of the program, given that the Shenzhen audience is relatively new to jazz/improvised music of this nature. The reason for the festival's length, and the fact that there were just two bands playing concise, one-hour sets, was done so as not to bombard the audience with too much of a good thing, as Fei Teng explained: "We want to ease the audience slowly into jazz music."

That said, the first concert of OLJF 2012-a Norwegian double bill of pop-electronic duo Streifenjunko and guitarist Kim Myhr-was a statement that the OLJF is committed to promoting modern, creative music, and there's arguably nowhere more creative than Norway these days. Streifenjunko is trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen Lønning, a long-standing duo whose work orbits the improvisation scene in Norway. The venue was Old Heaven Bookstore, an intimate setting which seemed more attuned to poetry readings, but the advantage of the limited, closely packed seating was that the audience observed an almost church-like reverence during the captivating one-hour performance.

Guitarist Kim Myhr is not your typical one-man-and-acoustic-guitar act, and his furiously hypnotic wall-of-sound opening certainly made an impact on the audience. Grace, a 19-year-old student said afterwards: "I have never listened to music like that before. It was very powerful; also frightening at times." Whilst full of respect for jazz tradition-and there was plenty of classical/mainstream jazz in the program-the curators' stated intention with OLJF is to seek innovation in the artists they book, so "powerful" and "frightening" are just about on the nose.

Myhr, who had already performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, before completing his tour in Kunming, was impressed by the audience in Old Heaven Bookstore: "It was a great gig. The room was full and the audience seemed receptive to the music. They seem open to different things." At OLJF 2011, the Norwegian trio In The Country performed, and in addition to Streifenjunko and Myhr, OLJF 2012 also presented MonkeyBar, a duo of Steinar Nickelsen on keyboards/vocals and Erik Nylander on drum machine who improvised around pop and techno beats. OLJF has not wasted any time in introducing its audience to an exciting cross-section of Norway's abundant musical talent.

There was plenty for fans of more mainstream jazz to cheer about as well. New York lent OLJF three of its finest contemporary saxophonists in Brian Girley-leading his quintet, Movement-clarinetist/bass saxophonist Oran Etkin, and Michael Blake, whose trio included the outstanding guest trombonist Samuel Blaser. Blake and Blaser combined beautifully throughout, weaving mellifluous harmonies and arresting counterpoint. The packed hall erupted when Blake, as is his custom, played two saxophones simultaneously. When I told one of the festival volunteers that Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to play three reed instruments at once, her mouth dropped open: "I hope he comes to Shenzhen next year," she said excitedly, and seemed quite disappointed when I told her this was impossible because he's no longer alive. However, I assured her that in Blake, she had witnessed one of the very best saxophonists on the modern jazz scene, which cheered her up

Jazz is relatively new to China, and certainly the young audience at OLJF was mostly unaware of jazz's history or its protagonists. The various movements of jazz through the past century, the musical controversies, the struggles of black jazz musicians, the modern bickering over propriety, were also not known to most. The youngsters-how often do you read that in a review of jazz concert?-came with an open mind and based their judgments purely on how much the music connected to them there and then.

This open-mindedness of the audience, uncluttered by the baggage of jazz's often pressing history, was one of the positives that many of the musicians commented upon during the 16 days. Drummer Laurent Robin, who led a formidable double-keyboard trio of Benjamin Moussay and Cedric Hanriot in Old Heaven Bookstore, said: "It's so refreshing to play to an audience who don't care if your music doesn't sound like [saxophonist] Charlie Parker. In Europe it's so boring when people say, 'hey, that's not jazz!' Give me a break! Do you think if Charlie Parker or [trumpeter] Miles Davis were still alive, they would be doing the same old stuff?" Robin, like the majority of the musicians at OLJF, expressed a desire to tour more frequently in China, precisely because of this refreshing blank page that young Chinese audiences often represent.

Keyboardist Moussay expanded a little on the experience of touring in China: "Chinese audiences are quite surprising," he says. "We played one gig in a club where people would speak louder than the band, even if we played quite loud. In another venue people would almost not clap between each tune; we were thinking they didn't like the show but after the last tune they clapped crazily and asked for three encores. Each night was different, but in general it was really nice to see young people deeply listening to our music and enjoying it. It's always great to see that beyond the language and culture, we can reach the audience with our music, without barriers."

There were plenty of high quality performances throughout OLJF 2012, and virtuosity in abundance. Pianist Nicholas Bouloukos of the Greco Nubian Trio impressed with his dramatic runs the length of the keys, but it was the trio's original take on Greek traditional music that will linger in the memory. Saxophonist Alec Haavik and drummer/percussionist Chris Trzcinski had to be alert to the pianist's odd meter changes, but despite the unpredictable flow of the music it basically swung, not exactly in a traditional way, but it swung nevertheless. Haavik-another New Yorker-was an energetic presence, and even he seemed to be happily awed by Bouloukos' dazzling technique.

Bouloukos has a long association with jazz in China, dating back to 2002, when he founded the Shanghai Youth Jazz Orchestra a multi-national ensemble with an age range of 10 to 17. Seeking a fresh challenge, Bouloukos moved to Shenzhen a couple of years ago, and he is clearly impressed with the OLJF: "Having been a part of jazz festivals in Asia for a long time, and in China since they started, I can say I like what they are doing here," says Bouloukos. "They're piecing together the educational aspect with the talks and lectures and they're trying to keep the festival affordable."

As for as the variety of artists on display, Bouloukos has slightly mixed feelings: "The audiences are discovering people they might not ever have heard of before, which is cool. I think the festival is doing a brilliant job," he says. "It is a little ironic, however, that there was only one African-American playing. The festival maybe leans a little too much towards Europe. That's just my personal feeling, but overall they're doing a great job"

In Shenzhen, as in Shanghai, Bouloukos is sowing the seeds of the future of jazz here, by starting up a Shenzhen Youth Jazz orchestra: "We've just started recruiting for the Shenzhen Youth Jazz Orchestra," he says. "It'll be the same model as in Shanghai, but if I get the backing it'll be larger. I'd like to have several bands of different age groups, maybe forty or fifty kids and they can come up through the ranks, like a conservatory. When you're ten, twelve or fifteen, you don't forget those values."

Bouloukos' enthusiasm is palpable, and as for the chances of the Shenzhen Jazz Youth Orchestra playing the 2013 edition of the OLJF he is crystal clear: "You can put that in the calendar- assuming that we get it off the ground and assuming that it sounds good. If there is a group, they will be performing for sure."

As for the surprisingly young age demographic of the audience at Shenzhen, Bouloukos remarks: "It was about ten years ago when they first flew me down to Shenzhen to play a jazz gig, and I remember thinking, God, it's all 20-year olds girls, what a great place to be. And now, ten years later I'm a lot older but they're all 20-year old girls still," he says through laughter." It's a very, very young audience."

The young, relaxed atmosphere of the OLJF is something that pretty much all visitors comment upon, and it's clearly a refreshing change for many musicians: "There's a vibe here," says Bouloukos, "the audiences are great. It's a little hard to put my finger on it, but they're already blasé in Shanghai. They've seen everything. In Shenzhen they have more disposable income and they're a little more open-minded. They're either in college or getting out of college and they're not settled into a 9 to 9-a job they can't get away from."

The audience at OLJF was young, educated and curious, which for Bouloukos was a nice change from Shanghai: "They like to have a coffee and read; there's almost a pseudo-Japanese vibe here. They enjoy learning about culture, whereas in Shanghai nobody has time for that anymore. The vibe there had started to remind me of New York—everybody has an angle. In Weibo or Shenzhen, I really don't know what 90% of the people who follow me do; they don't want to tell me. They just like my music."

It is hoped that a Shenzhen Youth Jazz orchestra will indeed get off the ground, but the promotion of Chinese jazz musicians is already an integral part of OLJF. In the festival's first edition, 17-year-old tenor saxophonist Li Gao Yang played the main stage. This year, two Chinese big bands performed on the main stage, the WeDo Big Band from Guangzhou province, and the Xinghai Modern Music Grand Orchestra.

The WeDo Big Band-who also played at the Beishan international Jazz Festival the following week—gave a polished performance, largely echoing the classic big-band era, and a few fine soloists within the ranks suggested that the ensemble contains the seeds of tomorrow's small jazz groups in Southern China.

The Xinghai Modern Music Grand Orchestra is a slightly different kettle of fish. Established in 2007, the XMMGO was the first group formed in the Xinghai Conservatory of Music and has been led by French expat Benoit Stasiaczyk from its inception. Stasiaczyk is a passionate teacher, encouraging both the study of the classic big-band repertoire as well as original composition. At present, the XMMGO boasts some 30 original compositions, and there was a refreshingly personal stamp on the orchestra's performance.

After the concert Stasiaczyk spoke of the challenges of establishing a jazz big band in China, and of encouraging originality and improvisation, but he can be justly proud of his young charges after their impressive, crowd-pleasing performance.

A couple of days earlier, Stasiaczyk appeared on the same stage, providing one of the highlights of OLJF 2012. Pianist, percussionist and vibraphonist, Stasiaczyk led his quartet of guitarist Federico Casagrande, bassist Wanh Xibu and drummer Deng Boyu through a stirring set notable for its contrasting dynamics. Minimalism and dramatic group interplay were constant partners as the tide shifted this way and that. Stasiaczyk's touch on the vibraphones was exquisite, and whether caressing the keys or blurring his mallets in adrenalin-charged attack, his language-inhabiting a space between Milt Jackson and Stefon Harris-was never less than absorbing.

OLJF provided vocal jazz of greatly contrasting styles; New-York based singer/guitarist Eliane Amherd, Croatian Ines Trickovic, Dutch singer Wouter Hamel, French songstress Rosane Russel and Slovenian Vasko Atanasovski showed that in the realm of vocal jazz-based music, there is an enormously wide range of influences, rhythms and textures. Swedish pianist Jacob Karlzon-voted Musician of the Year in 2010 in Swedish Radio's annual jazz poll-showed that Norway holds no Scandinavian monopoly on progressive, modern jazz. There was space too for avant-garde, with improvising duo Youlan-featuring Xu Fengshia on sanxian and guzheng, and Gunda Gottschalk on violin-exploring Western and Eastern classical roots with an exhilarating freedom.

The least jazz-inspired group of the festival, Argentinean seven-piece Captian Tifus-purveyors of hugely enjoyable chaos-mixed up Balkan bravura, ska, rock and Latin rhythms in a pulsating cocktail that had the audience on its feet. A few excited fans, inhibitions well and truly out the window, clambered onto the stage to strut their stuff before festival volunteer staff restored something approaching order.

Three solo performances stood out. Firstly, beat box artist Butterscotch, who specializes in songs colored by jazz/hip-hop-inflected vocal percussion. A fine vocalist, guitarist and classically-trained pianist to boot, Butterscotch exhibited an embarrassment of musical talent that captivated the crowd. Secondly, guitarist Federico Casagrande-filling in at short notice for a late, unfortunate cancellation-gave an absorbing performance, that-largely improvised-was impressionistic, dramatic and lyrical in turn. Finally, Australian drummer Will Guthrie's improvised rhythms using kit, found objects and electronics provided yet further evidence of OLJF's preference for artists who think outside of the box.

The success of the OLJF 2012 can be measured, not only in terms of a packed hall night after night, or in the enthusiastic response of the audiences to every performance, but in the vision of the festival to present music that might not automatically have met with approval. Like jazz music itself, risk should be part of any serious festival, for whilst the odd failure is soon forgotten-and there were none at OLJF 2012-innovative music that excites the passions is a spectacular success whatever way you look at it.

Photo Credits

Page 2 (top), page 4 (bottom): Ian Patterson

Page 5 (bottom): Tie Hua'er

All Other Photos: Sabrina Ouyang

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