The Cotton Club, Shanghai

The Cotton Club, Shanghai
Hrayr Attarian By

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On the night of April 15th 2016 the Cotton Club in Shanghai was teaming with young, fashionably dressed locals and intrigued tourists. Despite the overpriced drinks and extra charge for sitting down at a table (even standing at one) music lovers packed the small space. Located in the historic and hip French Concession neighborhood, The Cotton Club made Downbeat magazine's short list of Chinese jazz venues and every traveler's trusty companion; Lonely Planet lists it as the best in Shanghai.

As every music history nerd knows, Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was a hotbed for jazz in Asia. It is here that trumpeter Buck Clayton lead his first orchestra and local musicians like Li Jinhui put their own unique spin on the imported music. When jazz bars returned to China in the latter decades of the 20th century, Cotton Club was the first to open its doors.

The evening started at 9:30 pm with an intimate set of guitar/voice duets. The music was vaguely reminiscent of husband and wife duo Tuck and Patti's work except that guitarist Greg Smith did not exhibit Tuck Andress' virtuoso improvisational flights. Even though Smith's talent was apparent, he kept the solos brief and close to the themes. The repertoire consisted primarily American soft rock songs layered with a jazzy veneer and peppered with hints of the blues. The singer, Ginger Zheng, had a sensual contralto with raw emotive delivery and an expressive phrasing. It is a shame that she did not stretch out more on these tunes. The result was a pleasant and engaging 45 minutes that, alas, was far from thrilling.

The second set featured Smith leading the full house band, primarily made up of expats. Three guitars and a trumpet made up frontline and the rhythm section consisted of an electric bassist and a drummer. The music was even more pop inflected with breezy, lilting lines and smooth melodies. The individual ensemble members handled their instruments deftly and definite synergy marked their group performance that, nevertheless, lacked spontaneity and a creative spark. The evening's offering was genial and entertaining yet not quite as energetic and stimulating as is anticipated with such a gathering of accomplished musicians.

To be fair, the Cotton Club has hosted impromptu jam sessions with visiting luminaries such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This particular night may have been unusually low key. Based on the show of April 15th, the Cotton Club is a cozy place to have a few drinks with enjoyable live music in the background. It, however, is not heir to Shanghai's legendary jazz tradition.

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