Blue notes: Christmas jazz

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:57pm

Although Christmas songs started playing in Hong Kong's shopping malls around mid-November, I hadn't felt particularly in the spirit until last Saturday when I flew to Singapore for pianist Jeremy Monteiro's "Jazzy Christmas! Duets" concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, an annual tradition returning after a two-year hiatus.

The format for the show is never the same twice, and this year Monteiro programmed it as a series of six duets, each with a different artist, bringing them all together at the end of the show. It was the first of these seasonal concerts I'd been to, and although I'd expected the odd Christmas tune he performed at least one with each guest artist - and they all worked well.

They have reminded me there are good jazz Christmas albums - mostly downloadable if you need one at the last minute - so I have a few recommendations here.

The performance prompted a few thoughts. As Monteiro observed from the stage, introducing the first of a couple of tunes dedicated to musicians who had passed on, Christmas is a time when we think of absent friends. Jazz and blues have lost a few this year, most recently Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar - the latter is not a jazzman per se, but a huge influence on many, particularly on John Coltrane.

Others who fell to the grim reaper in 2012 include free-jazz saxophonist John Tchicai, guitarist Pete Cosey, band leader Johnny Otis, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, singer-guitarist "Doc" Watson, singer Etta James, saxophonist James "Red" Holloway, trombonist Eddie Bert and trumpeter Ted Curson.

Monteiro and fellow pianist Michael Veerapen performed Brubeck's In Your Own Sweet Way as a tribute duet, and there was also a tune with guitarist Shun Ng in tribute to Monteiro's friend and one of Ng's influences: Malaysian guitarist Paul Ponnudorai, also lost this year.

Ponnudorai was an astonishing guitarist and vocalist who didn't even need a band: he was able to keep rhythm, solo, and bass parts going simultaneously - and sing like Stevie Wonder at the same time. When trumpeter Wynton Marsalis heard Ponnudorai in a club in Singapore he jumped up on stage with his horn and joined in.

Ponnudorai was 51 when his liver gave up on him. But his funky beat goes on: Ng, who grew up in Chicago, has a number of influences - Tommy Emmanuel and a bunch of blues players among them - but Ponnudorai's fingerprints are all over his style, which can be heard on his debut album, Funky Thumb Stuff. The title refers to the signature technique he developed of playing independent thumb slap bass on the low strings of an acoustic guitar, punctuating the bass with staccato snatched guitar chords and rapid-fire lead lines in the instrument's upper register.

Ng is still a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music but he shows great promise; in some respects he reminds me of a young Eugene Pao.

Another high point of Monteiro's show was an astonishing performance by violinist Christian Howes. He said he had passed through Hong Kong during his Asian tour (the Esplanade show was the final date) but had not paused for a gig because there seemed to be no appropriate venue to play.

Last time he was here, Howes played the Skylark Lounge - another casualty of 2012, although owner David Cosman is hoping to find new premises.

It's a shame we missed Howes. He was on virtuosic form. The violin in jazz is still played by only a small minority of players, and listening to what Howes can do with it makes you wonder why.

Another highlight was an energetic performance from saxophonist Michael Paulo, a major attraction in Japan who has also toured extensively in Asia, but not Hong Kong. Annoyingly often this year, I have found myself looking at the touring schedules of jazz artists playing Japan who go on to gigs in Singapore, Bangkok, Manila or Jakarta - but not Hong Kong. We are missing out. Let's hope we do better in 2013.

Take Three

Three albums of Christmas music by jazz artists.

  • A Dave Brubeck Christmas (Telarc, 1996): the late Brubeck playing familiar sacred and secular Christmas tunes, making all of them sound fresh, and discovering unexpected permutations in each.
  • The Very Best of Christmas Jazz (Verve, 2001): a sampler culled from the Verve vaults featuring 14 artists getting festive for one tune each. John Coltrane playing Greensleeves is cheating a bit, but there are also the Count Basie Orchestra, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, organist Jimmy Smith, guitarist Kenny Burrell, Ella Fitzgerald and more.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965): an enduringly popular piano jazz album - certainly for Americans - featuring The Vince Guaraldi Trio. Remastered this year, with three bonus tracks.