Blue Notes by Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:21pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:21pm

The jazz component of this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival came to a triumphant conclusion with Roberto Fonseca and his band's exuberant performance at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall on March 21.

This concert made up for my having missed the shows by Sam Lee and Friends, and Gregory Porter.

Fonseca might not have won the Latin jazz Grammy for which his latest album, Yo, was nominated - unlike Porter, who did pick up the best jazz vocal album award for Liquid Spirit - but Yo was a strong album by any standards and came fully to life in concert.

The band included percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo and drummer Ramses Rodriguez, both of whom played with Fonseca on the recording; plus bassist Yandi Martinez and kora player Cherif Soumano, who didn't.

A showman as well as a musician Fonseca had the crowd singing along on Bibisa and Besame Mucho, and the band received well deserved standing ovations.

Etienne M'Bappé, who played electric bass on Yo, performed at the festival with John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension. I found their performance slightly anti-climactic although going by the audience response I was in the minority.

The quality of McLaughlin and M'Bappé's musicianship, and that of Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, and Ranjit Barot on drums, is not in dispute. But the compositions sounded monotonous and McLaughlin seemed to be relying more on his legendary speed than on his imagination. I was reminded of Frank Zappa's remark that McLaughlin had "found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun", but he is also renowned for his electric guitar tone and that he certainly delivered.

Past Arts Festival performances at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall featuring amplified instruments have not always been notable for sound quality, but the technicians now seem to have found out how to make the room work.

The sound was also crisp and clear for Madeleine Peyroux, who created an intimate atmosphere in a relatively large auditorium. She fielded a fine band led by guitarist (and Steely Dan's musical director) Jon Herington, and keyboardist Jim Beard who had played with Steely Dan and McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. That too was memorable.

Meanwhile, a promising gig this week will feature jazz, blues and rock guitarist Pete Harris, playing with local pick-up group The China Cats, at Makumba, an African music bar on D'Aguilar Street in Central.

Harris is known for his membership in the version of the Jerry Garcia Band that toured after Garcia's death in 1995, and for Django Obscura, a group founded to perform the music of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club De France, but which have since diversified into other areas.

"Now it's a project band I'm developing material for. We realised it's pointless to be a Hot Club band after our first Djangofest [tribute concerts for Django and the Hot Club organised annually in the United States featuring gypsy jazz musicians]. Those gypsy cats were born to that stuff," he says.

The Makumba gig will feature music from the repertoires of Garcia as a soloist and that of the Grateful Dead, with an emphasis on the jazz and blues side of his playing. "Jerry's jazzy feel harkened back to perhaps an earlier era of jazz. I've a feeling Jerry would have been delighted to play guitar in a Salvation Army band in 1911," says Harris.

The trip is Harris' first to Hong Kong and he and the aptly named China Cats - China Cat Sunflower is one of Garcia's best known compositions - will be playing both acoustic and electric sets on April 5.

Take Three

Three current albums from Fonseca, McLaughlin and Peyroux.

  • Yo (2012, Jazz Village): "This album unveils the beginning of a new phase more than the closure of an old one," says Fonseca. "I want to delve deep into my roots in light of my experiences and show the diversity of my musical universe." The album takes Cuban jazz deep into African musical territory.
  • The Blue Room (2013, Decca): Peyroux pays tribute to Ray Charles, and includes songs by Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, performed in the soulful spirit in which Charles interpreted country tunes.

  • The Boston Record (2014, Abstractlogix): Released on March 18, McLaughlin and his touring band, the 4th Dimension, captured in concert in Boston last year.