Big band theory

The Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra's concerts aim to give audiences a hands-on feel for the joy of swing, as bandleader Taka Hirohama tells Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 3:53pm

"Big band music came from troubled times. It tries to make people feel happy - it has that quality in the sound," says Hong Kong Fringe Club director Benny Chia Chun-heng. "We find that when we take the big band to perform in different places, people light up."

The association between the Fringe Club and the Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra, which appears on Friday and Saturday at City Hall, dates back to the politically uncertain days of 1997 when a big band led by Japanese businessman Taka Hirohama began to perform at the club on the last Saturday of every month.

The residency continues to this day, and after a while the band adopted its present name in recognition of its steadiest gig.

Hirohama - or "Taka-san" as he is usually addressed - started to play the saxophone in a high school marching band and when he attended his first big band concert he immediately knew what his future musical path would be.

"The first time I saw a live big band they played Count Basie and I really liked that sound with the five saxophone players. After that it was always big bands for me. The Count Basie sound is what I most like, but also Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman," says Hirohama.

As well as hosting the band on its premises, the Fringe Club has taken on an impresario's role with the Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra, helping to organise appearances in Shanghai, Singapore, and, most recently, as part of Hong Kong week in Taipei last November.

It has also arranged annual appearances at City Hall for the past four years in the "Swing For All" concert series.

These give the band the opportunity to perform to a larger audience than the size of the Fringe Club permits, and in a space that as Chia puts it "lends itself to audience participation".

In the past this has included appearances with the band by professional swing dancers, and a certain amount of dancing in the aisles has been encouraged.

Hirohama, now retired from business to pursue creative projects in jazz and film, says he likes to make each of the City Hall appearances a distinctive themed event, and this year has chosen to focus on rhythm.

"Music is melody, harmony and rhythm. This time I wanted to emphasise rhythm, so we have the drums and percussion at the front rather than the back where they usually are," he says.

I like to do something which is not just a concert but which tells a story - almost like a movie
Taka Hirohama

The performance - entitled "We Got Rhythm Let's Swing & Drum" - will include guest appearances from Japanese drummer Yoshinobu Inagaki and Fringe Club stalwart Kumi Masunaga who leads regular drum jam events at the club, encouraging all comers to discover their inner percussionist.

As well as performing with the orchestra, Masunaga will encourage audience members, who will be issued with their own percussion instruments, to join in. Chia says he also will be beating a drum.

Inagaki, who has been drumming since the age of 17, is one of Japan's most prominent jazz musicians and has performed with artists ranging from calypso singer Harry Belafonte to jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker. He now leads the Yoshinobu Inagaki Big Band and also his own jazz quartet.

"I like to do something which is not just a concert but which tells a story - almost like a movie," Hirohama says.

"This is a sort of jazz history. We start in 1940 with Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca, moving on to bossa nova with Stan Getz, and then come back to [the big band swing era] with Sing Sing Sing!"Manteca, co-written in 1947 by trumpeter Gillespie, arranger Gil Fuller and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, was one of the earliest jazz recordings to be based on a Cuban rhythm, and the first to achieve jazz standard status.

Sing Sing Sing! is a 1936 song written by Louis Prima which later became an instrumental signature tune for clarinettist Benny Goodman and his band. Departing from their normal practice, the whole band will sing on the tune.

The concert will also feature the orchestra's multi-talented regular vocalist, Elaine Liu, accompanying herself on guitar in the bossa nova section of the programme.

Liu also sometimes plays bass with the band.

Although Inagaki will be featured prominently, the band's current drummer - Dulip Charith Wijesinha, better known as DC - also gets to set up his full kit. He and Inagaki will perform a drum battle in the tradition of the duels between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

"In the finale we will join forces, with the drum jam participants joining the big band in Duke Ellington's Rocking in Rhythm," Hirohama says. He hopes the audiences will leave the concerts with an enhanced appreciation of that elusive musical quality: "swing".

"Swing isn't just a style," he says, "It's a feeling."

They should also leave in a good mood. Chia recalls one of the band's performances at the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

"Taka-san always used to finish with the Count Basie arrangement of April in Paris. After that, in Shanghai, an old lady came up to us and said 'This sounds like happiness'. It has that message, and for a producer and organiser that kind of feedback is very positive."

Fri-Sat, 8pm, Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, HK$150, HK$220, HK$280. Inquiries: 2521 7251