The China Jazz Festival : East Meets West
East Meets West is the international Jazz Festival hosted in China during The Golden Week holiday in May, 2006. The festival was to span over a 7 day period and different venues in Guangzhou and Shenzhen were chosen for musical performances. Bands of international stature were invited to play in the festival. Top Beijing musicians and musicians from Europe were top of bill in the festival. I was honoured to have been invited play in the festival. Each band would play in each of the venues in different locations on consecutive nights. My band was to play two nights in Guangzhou and one night in Shenzhen. I must thank my good friend Alfred Wong for liaising with the Chinese organizers and for all his help thoroughout the tour without whose help it would have been very very difficult for me and my band. Thanks again to Alfred.
Apart from Shenzhen, I had never travelled this deep into China, so all was new to me. On Monday 1st May, Alfred, my drummer Ding san, my bassist Ricky and I arrived in Guangzhou. It was quite a long trip from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and we were to play on the evening of our arrival. Our first venue was The Back Street Jazz Bar.
Day 1 : Back Street Jazz Bar
Break time at The Back Street Jazz Bar
The Back Street Jazz Bar is one of the classiest joints in Guangzhou : the prices of drinks and food there fully reflected this. The place is high tech in design with automated doors in the whole place. You simply cannot find a door handle anywhere in the place. The bar consists of two floors with the upper storey overlooking the entire the stage on the lower floor. Consequently, the ceiling seems sky high when you are standing on the stage on the lower floor. You feel as if you are in a cathedral. I met a lot of musicians and music fans in Guangzhou and I was very impressed with them : many of them are very very knowledgeable in music. You can feel their enthusiasm in music which is something I seldom experience in Hong Kong these days. Daniel Lam, a good friend of mine from the 48th Street days, travelled all the way to Guangzhou to see me play. That was really kind of him. Surprisingly I met quite a few fans in at my first show. They all live in Guangzhou and some had seen me play at 48th Street in Hong Kong; they turned out in numbers to support me. That really made me feel good and I thank them with all my heart for their support.
Travelling and playing on the same day is never easy. Travelling with substantial gear over substantial distances simply wear you out. We played for one and a half hour and in the latter part of the show Alfred joined us on stage. I can say this was the best show we have ever played but we did our best and we enjoy playing on stage, meeting people and making new friends. It was great jamming with Alfred again which is long overdue.
Day 2 : The Jazz Village
The venue of the second day is The Jazz Village. The Jazz Village is new low rise residential complex about 45 minutes' drive from the town centre of Guangzhou The environment is beautiful and the individual residential flats are modern looking. In the middle of this residential complex is a one story structure called the Jazz Village. It is basically a very sizeable exhibition hall for art exhibition and musical performances. The walls of the exhibition hall are adorned with blown up covers of 100 of the best Jazz recordings selected by the foremost music critic in Guangzhou Mr. Cheung Hu Chow. When you step into the exhibition hall, there is very heavy feel of art and music in the air. We arrived at the Jazz Village at around 5 in the afternoon and after the sound check, we walked around the area. It was very pleasant indeed. We started our show at around 6:30 and played for one hour and a half. Alfred joined us on stage in the latter half of the show.
Union Lake, I was told, are the top band from Beijing. I have never been to Beijing and I simply had no idea what to expect. For all I knew, they are a Fusion Jazz band. After the show at The Jazz Village, we travelled back to The Back Street Bar to see the Union Lake show. The band leader of the band Lung Lung is from Beijing and so are the two keyboard player. On drums is Phillapino drummer who has been living in Beijing for 14 years. The bassist is Toby, a Swedish national who is now living in Beijing. On percussion is a Japanese player who is also living in Beijing. I was really taken aback by their music. Their music is every bit as good as the top Fusion bands in Japan. They simply are one of the best bands I have ever had the privilege to see live on stage. Their musicianship, feel for the music and their touch is absolutely fantastic. I need say nothing of their skill level. In the middle of their show I had to ask myself whether I was in Japan or in Guangzhou Besides Japan, I have rarely heard such music played at such level with such intensity. It was a joy to listen and to see these maters musicians at work on stage. Their one and a half hour set was nothing short of breath-taking. Lung Lung is such a fan static Fusion guitar player. His solos and chord work are phenomenal.
After their show, they invited me and Alfred to join them on stage. Lung Lung picked up the bass guitar to back us. After 48th Street, this was the first time I had the feeling that everything was in tune, that everything fell into the right into place, when each instrument was communicating with one other and everything was locked in to became one unit. The vibration and music motion were something I had not experienced since parting company with my Japanese bass player Koya Hisakazu and my Japanese drummer Taro Takashi. Playing with Lung Lung's band brought back to me all the emotions and feeling I used to have playing with my Japanese rhythm section and I re-lived there and then on stage the emotion and beauty of music. It was a feeling I had forgotten since I closed down 48th Street. I walked off stage after the one song but Lung Lung's band and the audience were kind enough to ask me to stay on and I ended up playing three songs. Those three songs I played with Lung Lung's band were the highlight of all the my shows in China. After I got off stage, Alfred and Lung Lung went straight into standard Jazz and climaxing on Jaco's "Chicken". Lung Lung was equally stunning on the bass. I can hardly make up my mind as to whether he is a better bass player or a guitar player.
Day 3 : The Shenzhen Show
For the last show, we travelled from Guangzhou to Shenzhen. The venue is a live music bar featuring live music most nights of the week. The person liaising with us was the bassist of the house band. The sound check went rather smoothly. I asked to confirm the performance time. All the bands playing at the festival were expected to play no less than one and a half hours. I was told that one and a half hours was indeed the performance time and if I felt like it I could play longer, no problem. The house band started their set at around 9:30. A second act followed. We got on stage at around 11:00 p.m. The place was packed out : over 200 tickets were sold. But the number of audience did not tell the whole story and this turned out to be the most difficult show we had to play in China.
Shenzhen was never famous for its cultural or musical activities, it is more a place for entrepreneurs and business opportunities than anything else. Whilst there were undoubtedly a large number of customers in the bar, I was not too sure if many of them knew what we were doing on stage. As a performer, you know when you are connecting with the audience and when you are not. Amid the quieter songs, I could hear dice games and other drinking games going on in the place and it got so loud at one stage it was quite disturbing. It is extremely difficult to play in this kind of environment when they generate more noise off stage than you on stage. You cannot help but feel no one was listening to the music.
After playing for about one hour, I invited Alfred to join us on stage. After one song with Alfred, the guitarist of the house band came up to stage and made a stop sign with his hands and told me that time was up. I was under the impression that we were to play for one and a half hours. Well, maybe we started late and they were closing down. After we got off stage, the house band went on stage and started playing another set. The vibes were not good. None of the members of the house band came to say hello to us, no one talked to us and the feeling I got was we were intruding on their turf. The house band did their best to make us feel unwelcome and they were very successful in doing that. Throughout our performance, members of the house band sat as far away from the stage as possible and offered no support of any kind whatsoever. It was already a very difficult to show to play and I must say I was not sorry to get off stage. But being a professional musician, you just have to do your best whatever the circumstances. It seems to me that the house band basically kicked us off stage so they could get back on regardless of the fact that we were the main act of the festival at their venue. I did not want to argue with them, Shenzhen is not a place to start an argument. If the house band was trying to upstage us or if they were trying to make a statement with their music, I have to say they didn't make much of an impact.
To me music is for sharing. There are always better players and there is no point in being hostile to fellow musicians. We learn from better players and pass on our knowledge to younger or less experienced players. This spirit, I believe, is the proper spirit of playing music. There is absolutely no point engaging in a head-cutting competition. After all, we are not in a court of law. We are out to make friends not enemies. All in all, a rather forgettable night. Needless to say we did not hang around a minute longer than was necessary and left at the first moment. No one said goodbye to us and we did not say goodbye to anyone.
Food for thought
This trip to China had been a real eye-opener for me. I met a lot of people there and made a lot of freinds. Not only do they love music, many of them are very knowledgeable in music too. I also saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the standard of top musicians from Beijing. Japan unarguably has the highest music standard in Asia. Union Lake is every bit as good as their Japanese counterparts. It was very enjoyable to listen and watch them play and it was exhilarating to jam with them. There is little hope for playing music in Hong Kong. The way I see it, the music scene in Hong Kong is spiraling down to an abyss whilst things are getting warmed up in China. Hopefully my next stop will be Beijing.
For more pictures and stories of the China Jazz Festival 2006, click here.
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