Fickle fingers of fate

A live show illustrates how guitarists' digits decide their style

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 3:22pm

"I'm told the last time I was in Hong Kong was 2007," Lee Ritenour said after the first couple of numbers during his appearance last Sunday at Grappa's Cellar. "And it's the first time that I've played a club like this here."

Too true. Since we lost the old Jazz Club in Lan Kwai Fong, visiting international jazz artists usually play concert halls, although - with a small number of high-profile exceptions - they seldom fill them. But Ritenour had packed Grappa's Cellar, which now boasts a new stage. It was an encouraging turnout for a gig which had been organised at short notice. A good performance from Ritenour and his band had rather more edge to it than the "smooth jazz" label - under which he is often marketed - would suggest.

A good performance from Ritenour and his band had rather more edge to it than the "smooth jazz" label ... would suggest

Given the chance to watch him at closer quarters I found myself wondering how much of a guitarist's fate lies in his fingers. I remember reading an interview with Dave Gilmour, one of rock's most interesting electric guitar stylists, in which he claimed his style was based on coming to terms with the physical strengths and weaknesses of his fingers. There were particular things he could do well and others that he couldn't. For guitar parts he could think of, but which were beyond his physical ability to play, he said he simply hired other guitarists, including Ritenour who performed some of the guitar parts on Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Watching Ritenour's left hand, what was striking was how slender his fingers are - perfectly proportioned to handle the sometimes awkwardly compressed shapes required to properly voice jazz chords on the guitar. Perhaps this explains much of the slick sophistication of his playing.

Conversely, for example, bluesman John Lee Hooker's fingers were like a bunch of bananas, which explains much about his equally distinctive but rather simpler style.

Heartening though the turnout was for Ritenour, I fear it was probably at Allen Youngblood's expense. A lot of the faces I'd expect at Youngblood gigs were absent when he played the same venue the night before, but there for Ritenour.

I'm glad I managed to catch both: Youngblood and his band delivered a performance every bit as good as the show the next night.

Pianist Youngblood, saxophonist Blaine Whittaker, guitarist Guy Le Claire and drummer "D.C." Wijesinha who performed that night are all among the Hong Kong-based jazz musicians featured in "Perfect Pitch", an exhibition of jazz photographs in the main bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) until the end of the month.

The exhibition is open to the public from 10am to noon and from 3pm to 5pm daily, and features photographs taken both in performance and in various posed situations by photographers Terry Duckham and Elaine Liu.

Duckham's pictures are all of the musicians in performance and capture something of the intense concentration improvising jazz requires. One of them is of Liu, also well known as a jazz singer, playing double bass.

Liu's images for the most part are more conceptual in nature. She poses the musicians in various settings which she feels say something about them as players. Her images include pianist Yoyong Aquino, hands poised as they might be over a keyboard, but actually over water, entitled Reflections. Bassist and Sai Kung resident Peter Scherr is photographed on a stretch of waterfront, with his bass resting on the back of his head. Le Claire is pictured in the city with his guitar suspended in the air several feet above him.

Liu won the trust of her subjects, several of whom she persuaded to partially disrobe. Mark Henderson, who has a military background, is shown stripped to the waist standing over a campfire, brandishing his trumpet like a weapon.

Liu's images are all black and white, Duckham's all colour, and they are interesting to compare and contrast. The exhibition is a fascinating visual record of some of the interesting personalities who make up the local jazz scene. Some of the prints are for sale.

Take Three

Three noteworthy books of jazz photography.

  • The Eye of Jazz
  • (1989, Viking): Herman Leonard, who died in 2010, shot musicians from the bebop era onwards, often through plumes of cigarette smoke. His moody black-and-white studies are marvellous evocations of a bygone age.
  • The Jazz Image
  • (2006, Harry N. Abrams): subtitled Masters of Jazz Photography 1935-1965, this is a collection complied by Lee Tanner of photographs taken over three of the most exciting decades of the music's evolution.
  • The Cover Art of Blue Note Records
  • (2010, Collins and Brown): the CD era has not inspired cover art in anything like the way the LP era did. Blue Note was known for the excellence of its cover art featuring the photography of Francis Wolff. The sleeves of many classic albums are represented here at the size they were intended to be seen.