Beijing August 2006

On Sunday 20th August, 2006, I set out for Beijing with my good friend Alfred Wong. This was yet another music trip : I was invited to play in the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival. The festival was financed and organized by the Beijing Forbidden City Management Company. The festival was to last for three consecutive days on 23rd, 24th and 25th August. The festival featured 11 professional bands, 8 of them are from Beijing. An American artist and I were the only two outsiders to perform in the festival. Mr. Lung Lung recommended me to the committee organizing the Nine Gates Jazz Festival and they decided to invite me to take part in the festival. I am most grateful to Mr. Lung Lung for his kindness and recommendation without which I would not have taken part in such a prestigious event.

My part in the festival nearly did not come off. The organizing committee wanted me to bring my own band over to play in the Festival. I called up my number one bassist Koya Hisakazu but he was not availiable during that period having to return to Japan to attend the wedding of his relative. I could not find band members with the necessary expereince to play in such a big event. In the end I decided not to go. It was a very difficult decision to make. It was such an honour to be invited to take part in such a big event but I just could not find the right bassist and drummer to take with me to Beijing. Mr. Lung Lung then told me he would play bass for me and he would ask Funky san to play drums for me. What good news. Mr. Lung Lung is an exceptional guitarist and bassist and Funky san is a well known drummer from Japan now living in Beijing. You simply don't get to play with such accomplished musicians everyday. I was naturally pleased as punch.

 

Lead by Mr. Lung Lung, Union Lake is easily the best band in the whole of China.The band features bass, durms, percussion, two keyboards with Lung Lung on guitar. They play Fusion Jazz, all origninal materials. Their music is multi-layered and colourful. The first time I heard them play was when I played in the Gaungzhou Jazz Festival in May 2006. I was absolutely awe-struck, never expected to hear such fantastic music from a band from Beijing.

Mr. Lung Lung has the best rehearsal and recording studio in Beijing. Not necessarily the biggest but certainly the best equipped and comfortable place to record and rehearse complete with a top class sound man. Like the sudio itself Lung Lung is in high demand as a session player and poducer. The studio is located in an area called "Union Lake" and hence the name of the band. The studio is in the basement of a residential building. Walkiing into the stduio was real an eye-opener. I have never expected to find such a studio in Beijing.

 

This was the first time I went to Beijing. I was very impressed by the old imperial buildings, the Forbidden City, The Drum Tower, The Bell Tower and the HuTung right in the heart of Beijing. You see all these places in pictures but it is never quite the same when you are standing right in front of them. When you stand in front of them, you have a real sense of history, you feel as if you are in touch with something from the past, not unlike travelling back in time. Walking around Beijing, it is difficult to conjure up any image of this city having anything to do mildly with Western music. But I was skimming on the surface just like any other tourist. Through Mr. Lung Lung I was introduced to many of the top professional musicians working in Beijing and I was admitted to their inner world where eveyone and everything is to do with music, we talk all day about music, guitars and equipment. It really was like entering into an inner world which has no relation to the outside world at all. I could hardly believe I was in Beijing. I could easily have been in Japan where my Japanese friends with whom I talk about music all day and night. Sadly, I cannot understand a word they are saying, I cannot speak Manderin and don't have a clue as toowhat they were saying. A translator appears in the shape and form of my good friend Alfred. Just like in Japan, through music we communicated and you could feel music in the air, music in your pulse and you are always in the company musicians.

 

Union Lake at rehearsal

This band simply has some of the finest musicians in Beijing. Domnic, the drummer originally from the Phillipines is widely acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best drummer, in Beijing. Mr. Lung Lung is of course the band leader, ace guitarist and bassist, he writes most of the songs of the band. Their music is really enchanting. I have always been into Fusion Jazz although I cannot play a single note. Their music is honey to my ears. They will be releasing the first CD soon. I am really looking forward to that. This is just one heart-stopping band. A lot more people in China will be hearing a lot more about this band. Simply world class standard. Each member is a consumate player. Lung Lung is the man in Beijing, everybody knows him, well-respected everywhere. If you can play like him, you will very well be respected whereever you go. Lung Lung is a great guitarist but he is also a great bassist. It is often difficult to say whether he is a better guitar player or a better bassit. He has a fantastic collection of guitars and bass guitars and he is using a preamp and power amp by a German company call Engl. The sound is even better than my Mesa Boogie set-up.

Check out this Engl preamp and power amp. Incredible. The set up comes with a price tag of HK$30,000. But nothing good comes cheap. No money, no honey. If you have the money, I strongly advise you to get one, simply magic. Check out the Engl website here. After all, you only live once.

 

 
 
On the right is the bird's eye view of the studio. The acoustics are great. You can hear evey instrument. Credit must be given to their sound engineer.

 

A day in town

 

Many thanks to Terry Wong (Alfred's younger brother) for taking time to show us round. It was really great to meet him in Beijing. He is now the old Beijing hand having lived and worked there for a few years now. At mamangement level of his company, Terry is always busy, but he really took time off and took us round Beijing and gave us such a good time. Many thanks to Terry. Terry was a Hard Rock drummer. Not much a drummer these days but we all hope he gets back to the drum seat one day and get the music going again.

Carlo, Kirin, yours truly, Alfred and Percy

Music is an international languge and you make friends whereever you go.Carlo is an American lawyer working in Beijing. He is great piano player, playing with some of the best contemporary Blues artists when they play in Beijing. He is a regular player at CD Jazz Club. Kirin is a song writer, gutiar player and singing from Hong Kong. She is now living in Beijing writing and performing her own music. Percy is a arthitect from Hong Kong now living in Beijing. A guitar player and a music fanatic if there ever was one. I talked to him about not getting enough overdrive from my Tubescreamer. The next day he turned up with some 8 or 9 overdrive padels for me to try out. Simply incredible.

The Gold Buddah

"The Golden Buddah", the best piano player in China. Stunning is the word. Jazz, Blues, Blue Grass, anything you name it, Golden Buddah is the best.

With Percy, Izuo

Percy Laws is an Hong Kong architect living and working in Beijing. He is a guitar player and when it comes to gear and equipment, he really is the guy to know. He introduced to me many new effects and gear. For the last 5 or 6 years I have been concentrating on my playing and am not in touch with latest gear. It was great to meet Percy. Izuo (in the whiteh T-shirt) is the percussionaist of Union Lake. He is now living and working as a professional musician in Beijing. I first met him in May in Gazungzhou and it was great to see him again.

 

Music in the Forbidden City : The Nine Gates Jazz Festival

23-8-2006

 

Performers

8.23 Yinjao Big Band, Golden Buddha Jazz Unit, Tommy Chung Band (HK). Tuanjie Lake Band

8.24 Jungle Cat Band (U.S), Xia Jia Trio, Modern Pop Ban

8.25 Liu Yuan Band, Sondia And Band, Yang Ming Jazz Band

The offical website click here.

 

What a place to play music in. Simply breath-taking.

 

Show Time

Lung Lung on bass and Funky on drums

One each night of the festival, there were at least three bands performing. On the first night there were four. This kind of set up is always tricky to say the least. There is only a short time to set up between each band. Since each band has a different set-up, it is very trying on the sound engineers to get a good sound for each band. Since everything is miked up, there is very little you can do when you walk on stage. You had a sound check beforehand and when you come on stage you very much had to keep the amp the way it was when you had your sound check. You cannot simply turn up the volume as your amp is miked up and engineers had your levels marked. On the night, we had nearly a capacity crowd so as soon as you get on stage, there was a lot of pressure to get your gear ready and start playing as soon a possible. The audience was waiting.

During sound check in the afternoon, there was a bit of a problem with the flow-back monitors. The stage was absolutely huge and each musician seemed miles apart from one another. The flow back monitors were what we had to rely on to hear one another. During sound check the bass was not coming through enough on the monitors. I could just about hear it but that was it. I could hear my guitar and it was alright. Not the best sound I had heard on stage but I could manage. When it was my turn to perform, I got on stage and plugged in my guitar and everything went wrong.

I was given a choice of amps to choose from : a Marshall head and cab, a Fender Twin Reverb or a Roland Jazz Chorus. From my experience touring in Japan, always go for a transistor amp on stage. Tube amps are notoriously unstable and you just never know how worn out are the tubes. The tubes only break up after burning for a while so that you may hear a good sound at rehearsal but when you get on stage the sound can be completely different. Against my better judgment, I chose the Fender. I could kick myself for that. I just have this fixation on tube amps, always thinking they sound better. Well, they do if the are working properly. The Fender Twin sounded great during sound check. But when I walked on stage for my part in the festival, the first thing I noticed after plugging in was the amp was all fuzzy. I could not get a clean sound out of it and with overdrive it sound fuzzy and muddy. I knew instantly I was in trouble, the tubes must have been worn out. The sound from the amp was terrible. But there was no time to waste, you just had to get on and perform. Each band was allotted 45 minutes and not a moment to spare. There was no way to switch to a different amp as that would involve a tuning the amp and a sound check of the amp level. When you cannot get a good sound from your amp, you just lose your mood for music. But that was not the end of the story.

Once I started playing, I realized that I could hear next to nothing of the bass from my monitors and I could hear very very little of my guitar and even less of my singing : all I could hear was the drums. Well, you just have to get on with it and try to do your best. But that is not, again, the end of the story. At intervals, my guitar would suddenly surface from the monitors loud and clear. That really gave me a shock. Totally unexpected. After a while it would go away. Then my singing would come floating in through the monitors now and again and suddenly it would all go. It was very very difficult to perform under these conditions. All the experience playing at my Blues club and in Japan kicked in and helped me through my set. If I did not have the professional experience playing on stage in Hong Kong and in Japan, I would have been in real trouble. I did my best and received in the circumstances and recived a great reception from the audience. I am sure they were just being polite. There were so many technical problems it was impossible to try and get into the mood. All you could do was to do your best and get through your set.

Had the sound been better I would have enjoyed it so much more and played so much better. Alfred joined me on stage for one song. His playing was top-notch. His Roland Jazz Chorus transistor amp sounded like something from heaven compared to my Fender. Despite all the hick-ups, I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion. It was not perfect, but I was soaked up in the atmosphere and Lung Lung and Funky were fantastic. It was an great experience playing in front of some many people. After this, I really feel I can handle anything on any stage.

One thing never to forget, never chose a tube amp unless it is your own. On a big stage where everything is miked up and time is of the essence, there is no fall back position. Go for safety, go for the transistor amp. When Lung Lung came on and plugged into this Engl rig, I nearly cried. His rig sounded so good.

For pictures of the festival from the official website, click here.

 

Eat like a King

 

Pictures of a fraction of the dishes.

 

 

BBQ at Funky san's place

Friday evening we were invited to Funky san's place for BBQ. It was not ordinary BBQ. Quite besides the delicious food, the studio with in the premises was set up for a jam session. Funky san and a host of musicians at the BBQ took turns to jam in the studio. The studio is right next to the BBQ and you can it loud and clear while eating. Everything has to do with music when you are in the company of musicians who play music because they love music. I have met too many professional musicians in Hong Kong who would not touch their musical instruments with a 10 foot pole after they finished work. With real musicians, music is not just work, it is music, music is always in our blood. Yes, the food was great, but the music was better.

What are we doing? Waiting for dinner. What do you think.

 

Many thanks to Funky san for a lovely evening.

 

 

East Coast Jazz Bar

My next show was in a club called The East Coast Jazz Bar. The club is situated in an area called "Back Sea". The area has a big lake and all the bars and restaurants are littered around the lake. The place is bubbling every night. There must be over three hundred clubs bars and restaurants in that one single area. At night the lights are beautiful, they look like clusters of stars on a reflective surface. The East Coast Jazz Bar, as its name implies, is a Jazz place. The owner of the place, Mr. Lau Yuen, is a saxophone player and he performs with his band on Friday and Saturday nights. Their usual set up is three horns, bass and drums. The night we played the place was full. The owner's band played for one hour before we hit the stage. As Alfred was my guest for a few songs, we needed two guitar amps and we were told that there were two guitar amps ready.

Before we went on stage, it transpired that one of the amps was not working. The amp I was given to use was quite terrible. I don't know what make the amp is, never seen it before. There was no treble or mid from the amp. When I strum the bass strings, the speaker trembled and broke up. It was just horrendous. All I could hear was bass notes, there is nothing at all on the treble side. I turned down the bass on the amp but it sounded just the same. It is always hard to play unless you can get a reasonably decent sound from your amp. The sound I got on stage was far less than decent : I just could not believe they could not even come up with a reasonable am. I was not asking for a Mesa Boogie, just an an ordinary sounding amp would do.

We did our best and the audience were kind enough to give us a really good reception. But in two consecutive shows, I was beset by technical problems. I wish so much The East Coast Jazz club had a just a reasonable guitar amp for me, I would have enjoyed it so much more. The amp I had had the sound of a broken bass amp with a guitar plugged in. But I enjoyed the show playing with such consummate musicians like Lung Lung and Funky. It is hard to believe there is not a decent amp in the whole place. How could this possibly be the case? Surely I could not have been the only guitarist to ever play on stage there. But we had a good time nonetheless. What can I say.

 

The Great Wall

Chairman Mao once said "You ain 't no man until you have been to the Great Wall". I have seen pictures of the Great Wall so many time and often said to myself of what the fuzz. But once you have been there, you know what the fuzz it is all about : it is simply breath-taking both metaphorically and physically. It truly is one of the seven wonders of the world. It is hard to imagine how they manage to build the thing in ancient times without the help of modern day machinery. I am sure even today building it is an architectural feat. The wall spans for miles and hugs the contour of the mountains. At places the gradient is so steep it is frightening. Climbing up the stairs is arduous work. The height of each flight of stairs is different from the other. It makes climbing very difficult as there is no symetry in height in each of the step you take. The steepest of the gradient adds to difficult. My wife, Alfred and I managed with no little difficult to get to the first tower. When we look down, we are some 20 or 30 stories high. It really takes some nerve to keep go further up. Ascending was difficult but descending is even more difficult and even dangerous. If you have phobia of heights, you will have problem. Climbing down you can see down from where you are. It really is nerve-wrecking. It is both physically demanding and mentally trying. You just hold on to the hand rail for dear life. There really is nothing like it. Believe me. Nothing like it.
If this not steep enough for you, you must be pretty steep.

 

Jamming at Percy Law's Studio

Percy's basment of his flat is what a lot of us would dream of having. All the great ups lined the and you can actaully play through your had and cab. It is a luxury for many of us living in Hong Kong. Percy has got tones of gear and the bad thing about this is all his gear are great grear. Top-notched amps, head and cab, all the pedals you would want. Just fantastic.

 

 

The last of the shows was on 27th Sunday at Yu Gong Yi Shan. A rather usual name the place has been opened not for long but has built up a name for live music in a very short time. A medium size venue with a really nice stage.By the time I got to the last show, I had developed a phobia for gutar amps. For a change, all the equipment worked perfectly this time. That was the third show I played with Mr. Lung Lung and Funky san and we had built a good rapport by this stage. There was a decent enough crowd on the night. I was given a Marshall head and cab. I was still rather apprehensive about tube amps but the thing worked out alright. With my new overdrive pa delThe Banzai Fireball 2, I got a great sound out of them, creamy and overdriven but still transparent. The new effect pedal I acquired in Beijing is really the best overdrive padel I have ever heard (read more about it below). Alfred joined us on stage for a few songs as special guest. His guitar also sounded great with is new effect The Sparkle Drive by Voodoo Lab. After our show there was a jam session time. Our good freind Percy Laws joined the stage and quite a few other musicians. I really enjoyed the show, relaxed, no more faulty or shoddy equipment.

The was the best show, I really enjoyed it .Special thanks to the sound engineers. Great sound on stage.

 

Our friend Percy Laws introduced Alfred and I to the new generation of overdrive effects. I have been using the same overdrive an Ibanez TS-9 for a long long time. For the last 6 or 7 years I had been concentrating on my playing and never paid much attention to new overdrive effects. I was doing fine at 48th Street as I was using Mesa Boogie amps. But when I play these days, I have to be content with whatever amp they throw at me and often my guitar sound lacks the edge that I had using my Mesa Boogies. The Banzai Fireball two solved all the problems. (Full details click here)
Apart from the Fireball 2, I also ended up getting the effect case from Boss. The thing is massively overpriced, but it is ready made and handy and relatively light. The idea behind the thing with AC power supply is great. Good ideas are expensive. It's the thought that counts, they say.

 

 

Another show, another week in my life full of music and this time in Beijing. Music has taken me to so many places I would otherwise never have been. But for music, I would not have met some many nice people, made so many friends. I often feel music is what I am destined to do. Good times, bad times, whatever, music is always the right time. What is life without music anyway.

I will always remember this picture I took one evening walking out of Mr. Lung Lung's studio. It was around 6:00 p.m. The Beijing sky was so beautiful; it stirred my soul and strummed my heart strings. It was as beautiful as music, I felt the the pulse of life running through my blood again, I could hear music in my ears, I could see the wonder picture of life in my mind's eye and the full magic colour of music unfolding in front of my very eyes. Music is a gift, some have a bigger gift than others, but we should always treasure it. I met so many nice people and made so many good friends in Beijing. Although I do not understand their language, we communicated well enough though our music and our passion for music. I was in a brotherhood of like-minded musicians, who take music serious, who loves music and live for music.

Many many thanks to Mr. Lung Lung. But for him, this tour just would not have happened. Thanks again to Mr. Lung Lung.

 

One day I will go back and play in Beijing. I don't know when but I know, someday I will go back to play music and meet all my friends again.