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Our Jazz Pianists LIVE!

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: Our Jazz Pianists LIVE!
Before you even drop the needle or hit play, take a moment to soak in the title of the recording you hold in your hands. The emphasis must fall squarely on the first word: these are our jazz pianists—Hong Kong's. A proud statement of ownership, acknowledging a fresh wave of young talent breaking in a city not renowned for its appreciation or cultivation of improvised music.

It's the same title of the four-hour concert where these performances were recorded, one long, humid July day in Chai Wan, at the eastern edge of Hong Kong Island—and at a time when the city needed it most. Amid never-ending pandemic-related restrictions, with fleeting gigs and few to no international artists passing through the city for more than 18 months and counting, listeners instead gathered to celebrate homegrown talent. To hear what the future of jazz might sound like, from four Gen Z and millennial musicians collectively standing up and demanding a seat at the table, and deserving the spotlight of the world. 

The day began, as this collection does, with the Bowen Li Trio, represented here by the aching album opener "People Live For People," a lilting tribute to human interaction that couldn't have been better timed. Li's composition sports an inner harmonic intrigue shadowed by its unhurried pace, set by drummer Dean Li's rock-ish backbeat. Bassist Lui Ngao Yuen takes the first solo, an unconventionally stark, insistent attack of repeatedly, aggressively plucked notes, before Li's own shimmering improvisation erupts, guiding the music to an apparent dead end. After moments of disarray and disorientation, Lui pulls us back to earth; calm restored, the theme is playfully restated, with the sense of the first sunbeams peeking through after a storm has passed.

The trio's feel for collective soundscaping is further betrayed in a gorgeous cover of Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream," a piece originally scored for nine musicians on the legend's 1969 album The Prisoner—dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., a year after the civil rights activist's assassination—but here transformed into a yearning sigh, pregnant with the weight of passed years, underlining just how far the world still has to go.

Joyce Cheung's trio was bolstered midway through the set with the addition of cellist Bernard Chan and violinist Sally Law, who fleshed out the composer's classically tinged conceptions with a sophisticated chamber jazz sonic, evident here in the sumptuous swell of "Come and Go." Drawn from the pianist's 2020 debut album Set Loose, the piece's languorous pace unfolds a heartbreaking storyboard for the mind, or perhaps the soundtrack to a film not yet made. Presented with restrained poise and precisely organised into a series of musical chapters, Chan and Law's emotive string lines weave a delicate dialogue in response to Cheung's unravelling piano lines, while Jackiz Tsang's symmetric electric bass runs both ground the conversation, and guide it onto new topics. 

Despite the formalism implied by its title, the then-new single "Etude No. 1 in D" is not a short theoretical exercise for would-be solo virtuosi, but a dramatic nine-minute emotional exorcism for jazz trio. Opening once again with Cheung's tortured unaccompanied piano, a bright, warm set of melodic motifs slowly emerge, dancing merrily over the churning backbeat of Dean Li's second outing of the day. Yet this unworried weightlessness is gradually undercut by a lingering sense of unease, hinted at in Cheung's ever more urgent playing—melodies subtract and divide, retract and refocus, intensifying into an insistent vamp, then crumbling into freefall ... and landing at a moment of pastoral peace.

As the only one of the four pianists already in his thirties, Patrick Lui is something of an elder statesman amid this prodigious movement of upstarts, his reputation already well established both as a small group improviser and big band leader. On the single selection presented here, Lui's regular gigging trio serves up a masterclass in collective improvisation, working deftly through the taut funk and knotty, alternating time signatures of Alex Sipiagin's "Videlles." Tackling the Russian trumpeter's piece at a significantly faster pace than its original 2011 recording, Lui's intuitive arrangement democratically passes the spotlight around, without ever feeling like showboating. After the leader leisurely unpacks the cluttered progression with a studious harmonic insight and nuanced sense of swing, drummer Nate Wong (a celebrated leader in his own right, also known as a longtime member of Canto-rock band Nowhere Boys) executes a stunningly controlled, completely unaccompanied three-and-a-half-minute solo, discarding all sense of time, before suddenly announcing the band's return, pacing the way for bassist Jeff Lehmberg's frenetic improv over the head's disorientating spiral.

Closing this album is the line-up's youngest member, Daniel Chu, who made the brave choice to perform completely unaccompanied. Braver still, the set appeared to be largely spontaneous, an apparent outpouring of improvised vignettes at the mercy of inspiration's whim (an approach that makes it nigh impossible not to invoke the great Keith Jarrett). That conceit is represented here by the frantic, key-pounding assault now named "Traces Everywhere," a synapse-firing tumult of notes which hint at everything from Thelonious Monk to serialist composition, before abruptly concluding after less than three minutes. Removed from context, this fragment feels cold and detached, but as part of the sweeping dynamic arc of Chu's six-act set, it was glorious. Reviewing that day's performance for All About Jazz, I described this moment as "a series of frenetic flurries and staccato stabs, [that] climaxed with a thrilling fit of keyboard-bashing—fists, elbows and even forearms stabbing at the keys, a boxing bout called to a sudden mid-round draw."

There was a clear and bold intent behind Chu's decision to close his performance, on that day at that moment in history, with "Below the Lion Rock"—Canto-pop icon Roman Tam's theme tune to the 1970s Hong Kong TV show of the same name, now passed down through the generations as a local anthem of solidarity and resistance in the face of adversity. In Chu's hands, composer Joseph Koo's melody was just a jumping-off point, the hard stone foundations from which he unravelled ideas, tracing ever-wider circles away from the hallowed source. Displaying a mature restraint of his own virtuosity, Chu's heavy, heady meditation feels like both celebration and lament, a slow sense of discord and disquietude clouding this communal anthem, a lingering sense of storms and hard times ahead.

For all their musical differences, one of the great pleasures to be found in this set is that, recorded on the same stage on the same day—with the same mics, mixers, post-production, and more importantly, playing the same piano—Our Jazz Pianists is also a celebration of how much these musicians have in common. Of the community of young talent that now exists, in cahoots, together, as one.

Over the past 21 years, the Jazz World brand has done an inestimable amount for the city's music scene—first by importing overlooked records to these shores at a time few others were, and over the past decade, bringing dozens of international musical legends to the city. However, with the Our Jazz Pianists concert—the brand's 75th event and first focusing on local talent—and now the recording you hold in your hands, it's clear the group's most valuable work may be just beginning. 


Liner Notes copyright © 2024 Rob Garratt.

Our Jazz Pianists LIVE! can be purchased here.

Rob Garratt Contact Rob Garratt at All About Jazz.
UK-born, HK-based jazz fan and writer

Track Listing

Bowen Li Trio: People Live For People (Bowen Li); Bowen Li Trio: I Have a Dream (Herbie Hancock); Joyce Cheung Trio: Etude No.1 in D (Joyce Cheung); Joyce Cheung Trio: Come and Go (Joyce Cheung); Patrick Lui Trio: Videlles (Alex Sipiagin); Daniel Chui: Traces Everywhere (Daniel Chu); Daniel Chu: Below the Lion Rock (Joseph Koo/James Wong)

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Live album of four different pianist leader

Album information

Title: Our Jazz Pianists LIVE! | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Jazz World Records

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