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Theo Croker 4 Swing Cotton's Shanghai November 11, 2009 For the past three Wednesdays, Shanghai's favorite "bar-in-a-lane-house" has been presenting A Swinging Affair at Cotton's from 9pm to 12:30am. The quartet performs on the floor right beside the patrons, sitting on the same plush red chairs that Cotton's is renowned for and playing as if they were in their own living rooms. Trumpeter and band leader Theo Croker managed to gather together four of the town's most talented performers for "Theo Croker 4 Swing": Andres Boiarsky, fierce and light as a feather on the tenor sax, Lawrence Ku, sometimes whimsical, sometimes pensive on a Godin (nylon-stringed guitar), and Curtis Ostle, steady and lyrical on the upright bass. Then there's Croker, who's been all around town lately perfecting his art. Cotton's red walls and dim lighting provided a warm atmosphere for the set. It's not typical in Shanghai to have the instruments right up in your face. The quartet was positioned in front of the fireplace in the main room, sans stage. Boiarsky and Croker were mobile on their horns, both in terms of skill as well as literally. They got up close and personal with the patrons, bringing their swing to every corner of the room. The set began with "Alone Together," followed by "Stablemates'" by Benny Golson. Heads were bopping so much that wine glasses were struggling to be steady. The acoustics at Cotton's were amazing for a place not built for live performances. Ostle agreed: "Acoustically everything sounds great [at Cotton's], particularly the double bass." When asked what it's like to play without a drummer, he responded, "I have to work harder when there's no drummer because the time responsibility is on everyone, but mainly on me. It gives me more freedom to play what I want and it's a work-out, really. There's freedom, and yet I have to be more rhthymically concise because there's no drummer to save my ass. Playing with such great musicians in this kind of atmosphere inspires me to play better as well."
The song that really got under my skin tonight was less of a butt-shaker and more of a heart-wrencher: "In A Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington. Each instrument gave their own perspective to a central storyline. The passionate way the horns sang made me stop and focus. As the horns were soloing, Ku brought a piano-like quality to his strumming and Ostle added vignettes here and there on his bass. At times the rhthym section was so dead on, it's a mystery how they're able to connect like that having barely practiced together before.
The verve with which the musicians played illustrated how much they enjoyed performing there. Ku liked playing at Cotton's because of "the intimate environment, nice acoustics, and the chance to play [his] nylon string guitar." He continued, "You really have to tune into everyone else a lot more because there's no drums. Usually I have to lock into the drummer, so this is nice because it forces me to get in sync with everyone." It was easy to see what he meant - the guitar had a lot more presence in this quartet than in other jazz formations.
Croker added, "I love the intimacy here and the chance to play acoustic. When you're playing with microphones, the audience sometimes feels like the music is blaring at them and they end up talking louder. With acoustic, people listen more. Sound goes from my soul through my horn to their ears."
The second set began without warning as Croker launched into a new yarn with his horn. One moment the four of them were standing there hanging out and the next they're all playing. The absence of a stage enabled a kind of organic feeling. Cotton, the lady herself (owner of Cotton's), mentioned the same when asked what she's loved about these past few Wednesday nights. "It's been a very good atmosphere. The musicians and the customers interact, and I really like that. People mingle with each other, rather than just doing their own thing. The music binds everyone together."
Boiarsky seemed to agree: "This music is all about the spirit, it's about the right ambience. If the place is warm and has a special spirit like [Cotton's], the music flows naturally and effortlessly." You wouldn't be able to tell that it's effortless based on how much passion there was in the tenor sax. One of the most riveting segments were when Boiarsky and Croker went head to head, pushing each other to take their instruments further.
The last night of A Swinging Affair at Cotton's is Wednesday, November 18th. No cover and the promise of a good time. How could anyone refuse?