Canto-jazz is a unique fusion of the two musical styles
Light jazz is breathing new life into the formulaic world of Canto-pop, creating a fresh sound with a uniquely local flavour, writes Rachel Mok
Music lovers, critics as well as performers, have long complained about a soulless Canto-pop scene, where "k songs"- numbers created with karaoke renditions in mind - have come to define the genre. But in recent years, the rise of independent bands such as Chochukmo and singer-songwriters like Khalil Fong Dai-tung has given some much-needed variety and a bit of edge to the scene.
Local artists have been turning to jazz to add a touch of class to their music - and finding success. Established stars such as Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Karen Mok Man-wai have respectively released jazz albums Private Corner and Somewhere I Belong, and younger artists including Ivana Wong Yuen-chi, Eman Lam Yee-man and Kay Tse On-kei haven't been far behind in using jazz arrangements.
Bianca Wu Lam has perhaps made the most headway in the genre. Since returning from the US about six years ago to launch a music career, Wu has released five original albums. Her 2006 debut Love Notes was marketed as "pop jazz", a term rarely used then.
She has also made three albums of covers - Bianca Sings Timeless, Jazz Them Up and Bianca Sings Tess - featuring a selection of standards, Canto-pop and classics from the late Taiwanese songstress Teresa Teng Li-jun.
Wu often hears industry professionals describe jazz as tough to produce and market. She disagrees.
"The longer you work in the industry, the more you think the fans wouldn't accept a certain sound. But I think it should be the other way round - when you become narrow-minded yourself, you make narrow-minded music," says Wu, who studied acting and film production at the New York Film Academy.
Many people are too busy these days to look for new music, but the tendency to listen to whatever the radio is playing doesn't mean that audiences will not listen to anything else, she says.
"That's why musicians and people in the industry should be bold and deliver the sound they believe in - whether it's jazz, dance or rock music. As long as you do it, there will be someone listening."
When Wu set out on her jazz adventure, she worried she might lose her young fans. But the opposite happened - she has gained a young following, while her audiophile releases have won over middle-aged audiences.
People are tired of getting "formulaic Canto-pop through the same media every day", says Wu's producer, Patrick Chu, adding their job is to make music "from our hearts" and leave the promotion to others.
As local entertainment circles latch on to jazz as the new cool thing, Chu suggests the term may become ever-present in the next few years. "That is how the Hong Kong media, record labels and karaoke houses run their business. So, for a few years you may see 'jazz' being overused in the Hong Kong music market. Then they will move on to new buzzword. Everything is a short-lived trend."
Canto-pop classics with a light jazz twist are also taking over the audiophile market. Singers such as Mimi Lo Man-chong and Bondy Chiu Hok-yee have notched-up creditable sales, even on digital platforms such as HifiTrack, which offers downloads of direct studio masters for a fee.
One of HifiTrack's founders, music critic Fung Lai-chi, says record labels couldn't understand what he and his partners were doing when they launched the venture four years ago. But now HifiTrack has secured more than 30 partners, and sales of digital music have increased as the audience seeking quality sound broadens.
"There is a new segment of younger music lovers who demand higher audio quality," Fung says. The trend has led to a blossoming of jazz arrangements for classic songs featuring smooth female vocals, he adds. "After all, people want to relax and enjoy some easy listening after a long day at work."
That's not to say there is a bigger audience for pure jazz. Most local material lacks the improvisation associated with jazz, Fung says, so it's more accurate to say there is more Canto-pop with jazz elements. But Wu says it is not necessary to define a genre, or compare local productions with norms in the West.
"When we talk about jazz in the Chinese world, I don't think we need to compare it with standards like those performed by, say, Ella Fitzgerald," she says. "If we are doing exactly what they have already done, what's the point? We must be able add something new. We want to be more modern, and reach out to audiences. They will accept it eventually."
As crucial as it is to cultivate an audience, nurturing future generations of jazz musicians is equally important, says guitarist Teriver Cheung, who splits his time between New York and Hong Kong.
More young musicians are interested in jazz but "few have been able to turn it into a career or become semi-professional", he says. "Hong Kong needs a university programme for jazz so that people see it as more of a legitimate career than a hobby."
The 28-year-old, who recently completed an Asian tour with top musicians such as local guitar hero Eugene Pao, says it is also difficult for young local musicians to get gigs: "Hotels tend to hire foreign musicians so it looks like a jazz thing. And there aren't enough venues or platforms for young jazz musicians to play and learn."
That's where the Hong Kong Green Jazz Festival comes in. Music teacher and producer Joe Lung Yau-hang launched the event last December to provide a platform for younger jazz musicians to shine. The growth of the local jazz scene is hindered by a lack of opportunity for musicians to gain performing experience and to interact with each other, Lung says.
"The jazz circle in Hong Kong is pretty small - a few bars, small audiences and a small group of performers. So it is very difficult for young musicians to break in.
"They certainly feel nervous when they first start performing, especially if they get to play alongside international artists at events like the international jazz festival. That's why I want to create a platform for young musicians to face more audiences, and get to know other musicians, too."
Held at the Cattle Depot Artist Village last year, the inaugural festival featured five "green jazzers" - groups made up of musicians under 36. Recruitment has begun for this year's festival, and some applications have come in from overseas performers.
Lung hopes to secure government funding to expand the event. "More people are learning and playing music now, so the number of jazz musicians is larger, too," he says. "I think that, in the past, jazz was perceived mostly as more 'highbrow' music. But musicians are now more down to earth and are more willing to work with pop artists, too."
If Jimi Hendrix was right in saying music doesn't lie, Hong Kong's music choices reflect the people's attitudes, at least in part.
As Fung observes, the popularity of "twee" music among younger people, be it light jazz, bossa nova, folk or indie pop, reflects a change in lifestyle choices, too. The growing influence of independent online platforms such as Lawnmap, Jupyeah, The Leftovers, and Hong Kong Good Store shows the younger generation is aiming to pursue a relatively simple life.
"There is a tendency among young people to fight a certain system or establishment, whether it is [their championing] of independent music in recent years [in reaction to record companies] or the setting up of online exchange platforms against the materialism of the city," says Fung of HifiTrack.
When Lung started out as a drummer, most of his friends preferred rock or metal, but things are taking a new turn. "There are so many problems in society, getting angry isn't a solution. So why not just pick up something happy and enjoy it?" he says.