BLUE NOTES
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Hong Kong gigs

Pink Martini has Ronald Arculli dancing in the aisle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:58pm

I missed the spectacle myself, but I am reliably informed that at the second of Pink Martini's Hong Kong Arts Festival concerts, Ronald Arculli, vice-chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, was seen dancing in one of the aisles. It was that kind of night.

A good percentage of the audience was dancing on the stage - at bandleader Thomas Lauderdale's invitation - once during the last number before the interval, and once before the end of the concert.

Pink Martini treated the entire evening as a party, and cajoled the audience into the same mood. Fielding their original lead singer, China Forbes, rather than her occasional substitute Storm Large, the band delivered a slick show with jazz elements, although they were essentially secondary to the cabaret.

Bobby McFerrin's show at the festival was based on - but not confined to - the spirituals on his Spirityouall album. He too elicited some enthusiastic audience participation, as well as fielding an exceptional band.

McFerrin's music on this occasion was closer to Americana than jazz, as was Cassandra Wilson's, although her band included jazz musicians - notably bassist Lonnie Plaxico - for whom the arrangements can't have been too challenging.

Meanwhile, 30 years have passed since Stanley Jordan made his major-label debut, as the first new signing to the revived Blue Note imprint, which before his album Magic Touch had been dormant for seven years.

At the time it looked as though the guitarist's two-handed tapping technique - which essentially involved playing the guitar like a piano (he is an accomplished pianist) - would have a revolutionary impact. Even before Jordan's emergence, many guitarists were already incorporating finger-tapping into their bags of tricks, but nobody else seemed to want to take it quite as far; Jordan still has the field pretty much to himself.

Having put out an album about once every two years in the 1980s and 1990s, Jordan now records less frequently. Friends, his last release in 2011, was a collaboration with multiple guest artists performing jazz, blues and classical music.

His latest album, Duets, is a duo project with Kevin Eubanks, a fingerstyle jazz guitarist probably best known for a long stint on television with Jay Leno, leading the Tonight Show band.

"I knew [Eubanks] as one of the best musicians in the early days, before any of us were well-known beyond the inner music circles … a guitarist with an unconventional fingerstyle technique," Jordan says. "I could relate to that. We were going for something different. The music was big enough for both of us."

Recently the two old friends decided to tour together as a duo, and finding the partnership well received, they recorded Duets, on which both play piano and guitar.

Four of the 10 tracks were initially spontaneously improvised, then refined into original compositions. Four are jazz standards, and two are more recent pop tunes - Adele's Someone Like You (the album's least successful track) and Ellie Goulding's Lights.

"When I heard Lights, I knew this was a recognisable song we could do in our own way," Jordan says. "It was a little tricky because production plays such a big role in songs today. Jazz is more about melody and harmony. I chose Lights because of its hauntingly beautiful melody and sweet chords. I think the version we created is special on its own."

Some of the music is a little uncomfortably close to smooth jazz, but the self-composed duets, which they call "skull arrangements", work very well. The same is true of Gershwin's Summertime - and it is not at all easy to make that well-worn standard sound fresh - Thad Jones' A Child is Born; and Miles Davis and Bill Evans' Blue in Green.

"This album fills a nice niche because it's relaxing yet engaging," says Jordan. "When you hear Kevin and me playing together, it's all about the music and supporting each other. I just love the feel of it; it has a real sweetness."

In Hong Kong, the blues gig of the week is Henry Chung & The Spontaneous Explosion on Saturday at Backstage Live.

Take Three

Three other noteworthy albums by Stanley Jordan.

  • Magic Touch (1985, Blue Note): Al di Meola produced the album, Jordan's second, which put him on the map and the jazz festival circuit. Eleanor Rigby is the stand-out track.
  • Bolero (1994, Arista): the extended title track - the Ravel composition - is the album's tour de force, but there are also strong versions of compositions by Rod Temperton ( The Lady in My Life) and Jimi Hendrix ( Angel).
  • Live in New York (1998, Blue Note): a well-balanced live set with Jordan playing both unaccompanied - the situation in which his phenomenal technique is most impressive - and with some fine accompanists, including Kenny Kirkland on piano and Jeff Watts on drums.