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Victor Noriega: Hangin in Shanghai

Jason West By

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I'm a big fan of Horace Silver...we ended up listening to his music in depth and performing it regularly.
Shanghai as been referred to as the Paris of the East and the Whore of the Orient. It's one of the fastest growing cities in the world and one of the most densely populated. The city's history is rich with tales of gangsters and opium dens, but today its streets are filled with signs of Western trade, hordes of foreign tourists and, among them, musicians from all over the world.

When Victor Noriega visited Shanghai in February and March of 2005 the Seattle pianist and composer found work at JZ Club, a hip up-scale jazz room in the heart of the city. At JZ he gigged and jammed after hours with musicians from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, South America, and some local Chinese talent as well. He had free reign to play what he wanted, often choosing to focus on the original compositions from his 2004 release Stone's Throw (Noriega Music). In addition he reveled in Shanghai's social and cultural differences, comparing the city at present to New York at the height of the bebop era. According to Noriega, jazz has developed an underground following there, and he found himself smack dab in the middle.

AAJ: Where did you live in Shanghai?

VN: My girlfriend, my friend from Seattle and I found a great 3-bedroom apartment in the Jing'an District, in Puxi near the Jing'an Temple and Nanjing Road. This is an area that caters to tourists. Our place was on the fifth floor of a large apartment complex, with no elevator! We were lucky; our place came furnished with nice stuff, a big flat-screen TV with surround sound being the highlight (and for me the deciding factor in going with the place!), a fancy shower with multiple heads, a water dispenser... I think I lived better there than I do here! One weird thing was that we lived right next to a middle school; the basketball courts were right outside the bedroom windows. I suspect we probably would've slept a bit more if it weren't for recess waking us up every morning!

AAJ: How did you live? Describe a day in your life.

VN: One of the pleasures I had on a regular basis was the fifteen-minute walk to work. It was a straight shot down Wulumuqi Road to the club, and I would pass everything from modern skyrise hotels with valets parking BMWs, high-end clothing stores and art galleries, to small family shops selling household items, street food stands, bakeries... on these daily walks I always witnessed a broad spectrum of Shanghai city life.

AAJ: What about the diet? Was the food a difficult adjustment?

VN: The food was great; ordering it was the only problem. Only a few places had menus that were in English, so our dining choices were a bit limited. However we found a great Lao-mien (noodles) stand right by our place. That was a daily treat for me; the guys would stretch the noodles, separate them by banging them on the table then toss them into a small vat of boiling water. Ten seconds later they would take the noodles out and put them in a bowl with broth, then add a little pork and lots of cilantro on top. It was delicious and it cost about thirty US cents. Surprisingly, rice was not a part of our diet. It's considered to be just filler; ordering it would be like going to a nice steakhouse and requesting a side of toast with your filet mignon. Something that did take some adjustment is that most places serve meat in-bone. I think most Westerners aren't used to that.

AAJ: You worked at a jazz club called JZ Club. Describe the layout.

VN: JZ is large compared to other Shanghai clubs. You enter through crimson drapes and walk downstairs where the stage is in front, and bar tucked in back so as not to disturb the show. Upstairs, there were comfortable red sofas to relax in, and watch the musicians through the loft opening above the stage.

AAJ: What about the vibe of the club.

VN: JZ Club is considered one of the hippest spots in town. It's a place where people want to be seen. On the weekends it would get pretty packed; standing room only for the whole night. JZ was also the gathering spot for the city's jazz musicians. After their gigs they would stop by JZ to hang out and sit in. Oftentimes sessions would start at around two in the morning at the club. Audiences, a good mix of ex-pats and local Chinese, usually stuck around to watch the musicians let loose. It seemed like the night was never really over until we all got a good share of playing in.

AAJ: What's the scene like over there? Are the musicians playing jazz?

VN: There are many different types of music venues in Shanghai; a lot of standards gigs, and some funk and blues gigs as well. JZ club was the only real jazz gig in town where we could really let our hair down. The level of musicianship was very high in the group I was playing with. I felt that all the musicians in Shanghai were competent and skilled.

AAJ: What recordings did you bring over and share with them?

VN: I'm a big fan of Horace Silver's music. In Shanghai we ended up listening to his music in depth and performing it regularly. It was a great opportunity to educate ourselves and become engrossed in his music. We got to play some of his rarely played tunes such as "Metamorphosis, "Horace-Scope, and "Ecaroh, to name a few. The greatest thing for me was that we also played my tunes, and regularly enough to the point where it started to sound really together.


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