Hong Kong gigs

Hong Kong International Jazz Festival preview, and how the event has evolved over 10 years

Having slowly moved away from marquee names to focus more on up-and-coming artists, the festival is still going strong with this year’s performers including Alan Kwan, Hang Em High, Maxime Bender and Jazvolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 10:16pm

The Hong Kong International Jazz Festival 2017, which begins on September 30, is a milestone event for the organisers, the Hong Kong Jazz Association. “We’ve done it now for 10 years consecutively,” says founder and president Peter Lee with understandable pride.

Given the chequered record of previous jazz festivals in Hong Kong, the achievement is considerable.

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During the 1980s, tobacco company sponsorship brought major names to Hong Kong such as Miles Davis, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock. Those shows were well attended, but subsequent attempts by various promoters to emulate their success fell flat.

A lukewarm response to the 1994 Hong Kong International Jazz and Blues Festival – organised by the now defunct Jazz Club venue in Lan Kwai Fong – ensured that the event was not repeated. Meanwhile, an attempt to stage a version of the Netherlands’ North Sea Jazz Festival here in 2014 was cancelled just two months before the event due to “unsatisfactory ticket sales and the fact that no more headliners are expected to confirm on short notice”.

In both cases, big names requiring a big budget were supposed to be the draw. The first Hong Kong International Jazz Festival in 2008 also had those, in the form of Bob James, Mike Stern and Yellowjackets. International star power was also deployed in 2009 with the Henderson Berlin Chambers Trio; in 2010 with Stanley Jordan; in 2011 with Terence Blanchard; and in 2012 with the trio of Jimmy Cobb, Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Coryell. Since then, though, the festival has stuck with the formula of presenting a varied mix of international and local jazz or jazz-affiliated artists, taking the emphasis off marquee names.

“We do our best with a limited budget,” Lee says. “We try to hit a balance between different genres and try to feature some up-and-coming and low-recognition artists.”

He adds that some people compare festivals to one-off shows, which “isn’t quite fair”. “We’re a non-profit-making organisation to promote the art form locally and in China. There’s no point in bringing in the bigger names when there are other promoters doing that already.”

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As has become traditional, the festival launches with a free concert, which this year will be held in Olympic Square in Hong Kong Park on September 30. Hong Kong-born and New York-based guitarist Alan Kwan will appear with the Patrick Lui Quartet, followed by Hang Em High, a European sax, bass and drums trio with members from Poland, Austria and Switzerland.

Next up will be the Serbian group Eyot, who blend elements of folk, jazz, classical and electronic music. A mixed line-up of Hong Kong and Brazilian musicians in the Samba Jazz Collective will bring the show to an upbeat conclusion.

“I’m very proud to have this group from Serbia coming in,” Lee says. “They came in 2011 and nobody really recognised the new style of jazz they are developing. It’s very dark, but it’s amazing. They’ve made quite a name in Europe now. [That’s why] the free concert is very important. It encourages people to listen to things they haven’t heard before.”

On October 3, the festival presents a screening of Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s 2015 jazz movie, at the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre. Based loosely on incidents from the life of Chet Baker, it stars Ethan Hawke as the charismatic trumpet-playing singer, and, tragically, junkie.

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The rest of the festival comprises three double-bill concerts at Hong Kong City Hall from October 5 to 7.

On the Thursday night, Lee promises that Maxime Bender’s Universal Sky quartet, with members from Luxembourg Germany and France, will take the audience on “a romantic journey that breaks all borders and boundaries”. They will be followed by Jass – another multinational ensemble, featuring John Hollenbeck on drums, Samuel Blaser on trombone, Sebastien Boisseau on bass and Alban Darche on saxophone – who Lee describes as an “adventurist combo”.

On the Friday, saxophonist Tim Wilson and vocalist Fem Belling will lead Australian soul/jazz-inspired band Cannonball through a set which takes the music of the great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley as its inspiration. Canada’s Born To Be Blue Quartet will close the show, with pianist David Braid leading the band through the music he composed/arranged for the Chet Baker movie.

Saturday night sounds particularly promising. The concert opens with Danish funk-rock-jazz group Quadrillion, featuring chromatic harmonica virtuoso Mathias Heise.

Closing the show – and the festival – is Jazvolution, led by Hong Kong bassist Justin Siu. The set will feature pianist Ted Lo, who Lee says has made a major contribution to nurturing much of the young talent on the Hong Kong jazz scene.

“It will be modern, edgy jazz with lots of drama and energy,” band leader Siu says. “Our vocalist Janaia has a smooth, soulful and powerful voice. Ted Lo, needless to say, is as sophisticated and refined as ever.”

Lee and Siu agree that presenting creative jazz in Hong Kong is a challenging business, but are both cautiously optimistic about the music’s future here.

“We are extremely fortunate in Hong Kong to have an influx of great international artists, while receiving support from organisations such as the Hong Kong Jazz Association,” Siu says. “The fact that the festival has been able to keep running is a sign that jazz may be gaining ground here. There is no doubt that the city is receiving and producing more and more young people who have some form of formal background in music, and jazz is not far off their radar.”

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Lee would like to see more public and private funding for less commercial artists coming up in Hong Kong who aspire to be jazz musicians. “There are a lot of young musicians trying hard to play jazz and serious music, but the support is only about the same as it was 30 years ago,” he says.

“People like Ted Lo are doing an amazing job, but still, jazz needs a lot of time and patience and openness for people to understand the art form. And people don’t have time in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong International Jazz Festival 2017, Sep 30, Oct 3, 5-7, various venues. Hong Kong City Hall tickets available from Urbtix