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On The Road With The Asian Jazz All-Stars Power Quartet

Ian Patterson By

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London Jazz Festival Workshop and Gig

The London Jazz Festival was in full swing when the AJASPQ touched down on Thursday, 15th November. Few festivals in the world can match London's exciting and increasingly eclectic program. Monteiro had already experienced the atmosphere of the London Jazz Festival in 2010 when he performed there with his Organamix trio but this was the first time for the other musicians in the band and it clearly meant a lot to them: "It's the highlight of my career," said Pao. "It's a really big festival."

The day before the much anticipated concert at the London Jazz festival the AJASPQ gave a workshop at the South Bank Centre, in front of The Thames. Three students from London College, drummer Oberon King, double bassist Inga Eichler and pianist Rowan Hudson, encouraged by their teachers, gamely volunteered to perform before a small audience and then to be critiqued by Monteiro, Hong and bassist Andrew Brown, the latter who was playing in the festival with singer Stacey Kent. Monteiro advised Hudson to be more mindful of his left hand to aim for melodic, harmonic and rhythmic tension in his soloing.

Brown—addressing Eichler—and Monteiro both spoke of the need to develop more pronounced contours in their solos, as well as the positive affect of varying the volume. Monteiro stressed the necessity of finding a common pulse and the importance of eye contact to communicate. He also paraphrased philosopher Carl Jung's line on making the unconscious conscious, suggesting the young musicians mentally step outside the band to hear if they are playing too loud or too softly. Hong, for his part, advised Oberon to aim to develop a greater sense of flow in his drum solos.

After the workshop, Monteiro—a self-taught jazz musician—reflected on his role as an educator : "For the first twenty years of my career I didn't bother with the education side of it, but I've come to see that to be part of passing the music on and moving it forward is very important." In conversation with the three jazz students after the workshop over a coffee it was clear that Monteiro's sentiments about the importance of education resonated strongly with these students, given the way they spoke of their university teachers at Middlesex University: "They're absolutely amazing," said Hudson. King concurred: "They're really dedicated and they care about teaching. They're genuinely interested in wanting us to do well." Inga added: "They're great. "They're working musicians, not just academics."

The students estimated that two-thirds of the jazz they study at university is from the American tradition: "It's still the benchmark everywhere, isn't it?" affirmed King. Nevertheless, when asked what they enjoy listening to, the three talk of Hermeto Pascoal and Brazilian music, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist Keith Tippett, alto saxophonist Elton Dean and music from Germany and Iceland, not to mention classical music. American jazz remains the template, but music from all over the world is increasingly providing new vocabulary and accents.

These bright young talents are pretty savvy and have no illusions as to the difficulties they will face in pursuit of a career as professional jazz musicians: "It's tough. There's so much competition," observed Eichler. "You might have an incredible set of skills and be a great player but it may still be impossible to find work," Hudson added, going on to say, "It's not necessarily the best idea to just muscle in on a scene or try and get in with a collective of musicians; you have to find your own way. You have to advertise yourself—that's the modern world, and making this music applicable to a modern audience is vitally important."

The main business, the AJASPQ's concert at the London Jazz Festival took place the following evening. The intimate basement of Pizza Express has been the scene of some amazing jazz concerts since 1969 and the walls are adorned with photos of some of the illustrious figures who have performed there. The sound check went without a hitch and the AJASPQ took to the stage at 8.00 pm. After introducing the members to the audience, Monteiro said to the band: "Play as long as you like, if the spirit takes you." The spirit, perhaps fuelled by the jazz greats staring down from the walls, certainly took the musicians, and the performance, capped by an exhilarating give-and-take between Pao and Tolentino that evoked the heady, ecstasy-driven highs of the Mahavishnu Orchestra brought loud cheers from the small but vocal audience. Celebratory Guinness flowed late into the night.

Pianos and Formula One Technology

The following day was a quest to find and test some of the latest in piano and keyboard technology. The first port of call for Monteiro, Varian and the author was Sevenoaks, Kent—a forty-minute train journey outside London—to visit Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios. Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios is home to Phoenix Pianos, the enterprise of Richard Dain. Dain's family has farmed hazelnuts for sixty years, but when the keen amateur pianist and mechanical engineer bought a Bosendorfer Imperial piano it set in motion an experiment—now in progress 16 years—to perfect the sound that a piano could produce using modern technologies.

Dain and engineer Geoff Sapsford are using state of the art acoustic and computer science to improve the power and sustain of notes. Their designs also aim to lengthen a piano's lifespan, whilst protecting it from the adverse affects of harsh climates. Dain's design concepts so impressed Steingraeber & Söhne of Bayreuth that it formed a partnership with Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios to incorporate Dain's system into its pianos—thus giving birth to a special range of pianos called Steingraeber-Phoenix. Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios is now the sole UK agent for the famous piano manufacturing company that provided Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt with his last grand piano.

Alongside a strong sense of history and tradition at Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios there was also one of innovation and progress, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the enthusiasm and sense of purpose that both Dain and Sapsford exuded in talking about their craft. The key element in their innovative design is carbon fiber. "The five-layer soundboard is carbon fiber, and is based on Formula One racing car technology," explained 84-year-old Dain. "The fibers are directionally controlled, like a Formula One car. It's extremely thin so sound energy loss is very much reduced."

Dain showed us a new design of patented bridge agaffe, which he claimed transmits vibration energy from the strings to the soundboard more efficiently than conventional bridge pins and eliminates the down-bearing forces from the strings to the soundboard. This, he explained, eliminates the gradual collapse of sound boards, thus extending the piano's lifespan. Dain pointed out a host of other features, both technical and aesthetic, but the other notable innovation was hydraulically operated pedals, which he said serve to reduce noise and increase versatility.

At the time of our visit, Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios was home to around 30 extremely handsome grand pianos, finished in white maple and burl walnut, with keys honed from mammoth ivory dug up from Siberian ice. The pianos are housed in a wooden-framed building called the "Hurricane Barn," built by Dain himself. The name is derived from the fact that all the wooden beams were hewn from trees blown over in the storm of 15-16 October 1987, the most violent storm to hit England in 300 years. "Winds reached 130 mph," Dain related, "and uprooted 10,000 trees on the farm. These were hardwood trees—so hard that you couldn't drive a nail into them without drilling a hole. It was two years before I could walk on the farm, such was the damage."

Monteiro tried out a number of pianos, drawing classical lines and jazz melodies from a number of models. His interest in the Phoenix range of pianos had much to do with the climatic conditions in his native Singapore: "Concert halls have to very carefully regulate temperature and control humidity before rolling a piano onto the stage," he explained. "I'm curious to see how these pianos with carbon fiber soundboards sound." The answer to Asia's unkind climactic conditions—at least to pianos—was stored in the building opposite the Hurricane Barn. Dain opened the door of the recital hall—converted from a farm machinery shed—and introduced us to Phoenix Piano's boldest attempt yet to harness technology in a bid to outfox nature—a carbon fiber piano.

Not yet in commercial production, this was the prototype that Dain and Sapsford believe represents the forerunner of the next generation of piano: "It's extremely durable," said Dain, "and the main advantage is that it's completely unaffected by temperature or humidity." The sleek looking carbon fiber piano may also represent the most significant advance in piano design for over a century. It's also about one third of the weight of a traditional grand piano.

Whereas Dain and Sapsford are genuinely excited by the carbon fiber piano's possibilities, Monteiro was more guarded in his praise: "It's undoubtedly a fascinating project," he said, "but I'm not sure if the sound is an improvement. I'd need to spend more time with it." As for the hydraulic foot pedals, Monteiro acknowledged the ingeniousness of the design but admitted it wasn't for him: "I'd have to undo a lifetime's learning," he said. Like a lot of cutting edge and experimental technology, the carbon fiber piano's appeal may lie with a younger, less traditional generation and one not yet set in its ways. It will be fascinating to see the story unfold, as it surely will.


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