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Friday, November 08, 2019, 17:08
All that jazz
By Rob Garratt
Friday, November 08, 2019, 17:08 By Rob Garratt

For a city not known to have favored jazz over other popular genres until recently, HK is seeing an unprecedented explosion of jazziness, says Rob Garratt

Teriver Cheung plays with chamber group Enseble Transience at Freespace Jazz Festival. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Jazz has long been music’s most misunderstood genre — somehow conjuring conflicting nightmares of numbing elevator muzak and cacophonic indulgence. However, Hong Kong now seems to be firmly falling into rhythm with a sudden and unprecedented wave of large-scale events striking this season.

The high of the epic Jazz Gala on Nov 3 — a posterior-testing, six-hour showdown hosted at Hong Kong Cultural Centre — might only be topped by this weekend’s Freespace Jazz Festival, another all-new event that promises a heady mix of visiting and local talent, taking place at the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Hungry jazz heads may have already been sated by the 12th annual Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, a four-day event that happened in September. There were also gigs from A-listers Kamasi Washington and Marcus Miller, who both appeared as part of the ongoing Jazz World Live Series. 

Collectively, these events add up to an unprecedented explosion of jazziness in a city never known to swing. 

Teriver Cheung, curator of Jazz Gala and one of the city’s leading players, says jazz suits Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan make-up. 

“Jazz is really a music that brings together (people) of different countries and cultures for conversation and exchange,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a spiritual type of music. Listen to (John) Coltrane and Miles (Davis) — there’re lots of spiritual elements, a lot of exploring who you are and finding your own identity. That’s what we all need right now.”

Experimental music band Mo-Men-T teams up with Wuji Ensemble in Freespace Jazz Festival. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

East and west

In that spirit of exchange and expression, Cheung’s concept for the Jazz Gala, hosted by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, was to pair the city’s very best jazz performers alongside visiting international talent, with the balance tipped toward the former. Crucially, for a genre so renowned for regurgitating a standards repertoire, all the music presented at the event was original.

World-class players such as Kendrick Scott — a renowned drummer and composer who has toured with jazz greats, including Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard — flew in to play not their own music but tunes by Cheung and his contemporaries. 

To his two shared sets, Scott brought a telepathic virtuosity and conjured a rich groove beneath the funky fusion flavors of local jazz collective, Tjoe & NTBM. Subtler textures were reserved for Cheung’s  nuanced sound-painting, enlivening material from the guitarist’s excellent recent album, Episodes, to create an impressionistic portrait of a day in Hong Kong. 

“Jazz was created to communicate, and in that same spirit of communication and love and struggle, we play that music, knowing at the same time what we’re doing is bigger than music,” says Scott. “Love and communication is bigger than any other thing that can separate us — what we look like, who we worship, where we live, or any of that.”

Grammy-winner pianist Robert Glasper is a star attraction of Freespace Jazz Festival. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

For local jazz enthusiasts, there’s a long-running joke and acknowledgement that the city has a shortage of horn players. “We have too many guitarists,” laughs Cheung , himself one of four six-string-slinging bandleaders on the seven-group bill. It was exciting then to see some notable international saxophonists in town for Jazz Gala. Storied spiritual British alto player, Martin Speake, sparkled alongside Hong Kong-based experimental group, Mo-Men-T, navigating the quintet’s rocky chords, moody soundscapes and angular melodies with intuitively crystalline phrasing. His compatriot, Alex Woods, was the sharpest voice of a three-horn-attack out front for Tjoe & NTBM’s set. 

Most compelling was American reeds player Dayna Stephens’ appearance with Alan Kwan, reviving an earlier collaboration from the album Petrichor and naturally bringing an empathetic understanding to the Hong Kong guitarist’s pastoral modern jazz sound-painting. As well as making a second surprise appearance in Cheung’s band, Stephens’ searing sax soulfully searched the cosmos with grace and fire alike.

Starry nights

Many of the same local talents will be appearing again at this weekend’s inaugural Freespace Jazz Festival, albeit in different company: Mo-Men-T will this time explore traditional Chinese music in their ongoing collaboration with Wuji Ensemble, Kwan will duet with Mike Tseng while Cheung will revive his orchestral Ensemble Transience project. 

Alan Kwan’s pastoral modern jazz soundscapes regaled audiences at Jazz Gala last week. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, at this free event, which includes indoor and outdoor concerts, the spotlight will be firmly thrown on the two visiting acts who will perform fully original, ticketed sets inside The Box.

Saturday will see trailblazing British piano trio GoGo Penguin perform. This barrier-busting group is known for incorporating the influence of both electronica and dance music into its works while also taking the repetitive melodic approach of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass.

And on Sunday, the festival wraps up with perhaps the hottest jazz ticket of the year with Robert Glasper, the ground-breaking, Grammy-winning American pianist who has arguably done more to blend the worlds of hip-hop and jazz than any other musician this century. 

Despite being credited on the works of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu and Jay Z, Glasper has also earned the ultimate in jazz stripes with Everything’s Beautiful (2016), an authorized duet album featuring music from the late jazz great, Miles Davis. And performing in Hong Kong on grand piano with an acoustic trio — the classic configuration which defined his early, jazziest recordings — Glasper is sure to deliver a set that even purists can’t resist.

If you go

Freespace Jazz Festival

Dates: Nov 9-10, 10:30 am-8 pm

Venue: The Box, Freespace and Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District, Kowloon

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