Sights and Sounds

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Four great New York Jazz concerts in Hong Kong

Jazz lovers can look forward to hearing the authentic Big Apple jazz sounds of greats such as Joey Alexander, Antonio Sanchez, Teriver Cheung and Chok Kerong, and Chris Botti, who will soon be performing live in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 9:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 9:47am

Just why is New York the epicentre of jazz? Jazz critic Ted Gioiapondered this question in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal last year. It hadn’t always been like that: at the beginning of the 20th century every jazz player had to be in New Orleans; by the 1920s – the “Jazz Age” – the best players were in Chicago, which offered better economic opportunities for black musicians.

And then by 1930, despite some of the top jazz musicians’ initial resistance and New York audiences’ initial hesitation, it was all about the Big Apple. And it still is. And if jazz has gone global, with brilliant musicians coming out of every major country on every major continent, New York is the one city they just have to move to.

“Great jazz artists often don’t come from Manhattan, but they struggle to build a reputation and gain career traction if they don’t come to Manhattan,” Gioia wrote in the City Journal.

In the next few months Hong Kong will be hosting no fewer than four top musicians from New York. None of them is a New York native – they come from Hong Kong, Bali, Mexico City and Portland, Oregon via Italy – but they all made their names there, and going to see any (or indeed all) of them could be seen as a great education in current jazz trends and top names.

Joey Alexander

First up is the youngest (by a long way).

Fourteen-year-old Indonesian jazz pianist Joey Alexander, who’ll be playing his Hong Kong debut on November 9 at the Asia Society in Admiralty (together with Dan Chmielinski on bass and Ulysses S Owens Jnr on drums), taught himself to play using a mini electric keyboard when he was six.

There was music in the family – his aunt is pop singer Nafa Urbach; they played jazz greats for him when he was still in the womb.

When he showed an interest in jazz as a small boy, his father took him to jam sessions in Bali, where they lived, and by the age of eight they had moved to Jakarta to be closer to the jazz scene.

When he was 10, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and celebrated trumpet player Wynton Marsalis saw him on YouTube invited him to play in New York.

He became an overnight sensation in the US, gave performances to at least two former US presidents (Barack Obama and Bill Clinton) and decided with his family to move to New York.

Antonio Sanchez

In 2014, the director Alejandro González Iñárritu was final-editing the American black comedy film Birdman, starring Michael Keaton as an old Hollywood actor struggling to put on a Broadway adaptation of a short story by Raymond Carver.

It won Academy Award for Best Picture the following year, and three other Oscars (including best director) out of nine nominations.

There was one surprise omission though: a technicality meant the original score could not be nominated for an Academy Award (even though it had a Golden Globe nomination, and later won a BAFTA award and a Grammy).

The score – which consisted largely of solo percussion, giving the whole film a kind of frantic nerve jangling pace – was improvised by fabled drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Sanchez, who was born in Mexico City, and lives in New York was for a long time jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s drummer of choice, and was also a sideman with Chick Corea, Gary Burton and others.

Now he tours the world with his own band, The Migration, with pianist John Escreet, bassist Noam Wiesenburg, his wife, the Croatian American vocalist Thana Alexa, and saxophonist Seamus Blake.

The Migration will be playing City Hall on November 24 at 8 o’clock, and that afternoon at 4.30pm Sanchez will be giving a workshop on “musicality and story telling on drum set”. The band will perform its new album, The Meridian Suite, which Sanchez says is his “attempt to write in novel form, rather than in short stories”.

Teriver Cheung and Chok Kerong

Hong Kong-born Teriver Cheung was comparatively slow to reach jazz music; his musical journey (from five, playing piano) began with classical music. He only switched to guitar, and jazz, at 16. But he learned quickly and soon won a scholarship to study for a BA in Jazz at the University of North Texas. He moved to New York in 2009, and since then has been playing around the world – including several times in Hong Kong, including with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and for Hong Kong festivals overseas.

He’ll be playing in Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre Studio Theatre on January 5 and 6 along with a jazz organ trio, a four-piece wind section and a string quartet in a collaboration called Departure. He’s created it along with Singapore jazz keyboardist and composer Chok Kerong, who has been trying to work out the “inner working of songs” since he can remember.

Although he doesn’t live in New York, Chok still has that New York connection as he spent several years studying at the Manhattan School of Music after becoming the first jazz musician in Singapore to get a National Arts Council overseas scholarship.

“The idea of Departure first came up in 2015,” Cheung says. “I composed a piece named ‘Morning before Departure’… [It] describes the dreamy feeling before sunrise at the airport, waiting alone for a departing flight.”

“The word ‘Departure’ holds a lot of meaning for me,” he says. As an international musician living away from his original home, Cheung has been departing, and arriving, for more than 10 years.

Chris Botti

Who is the top-selling instrumental artist in the US? Some of the hottest tickets for the 2018 Hong Kong Arts Festival are for February 23 and 24 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to hear the velvet sounds of American jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, together with an eight-piece band.

Botti was born in Portland, Oregon, to an American concert pianist mother and an Italian father. He started with classical music, but decided to play the trumpet seriously when he was 12 years old and heard a recording of Miles Davis playing My Funny Valentine.

Since then he’s played in just about every top venue in the world, from the Sydney Opera House to the White House, from Carnegie Hall to Italy’s Teatro di San Carlo. In one interview a couple of years ago, he said he lived out of a suitcase so much that he had given up having an actual home – he had sold his smart home in the Hollywood Hills and had moved into a New York City hotel.

“I mean, I don’t even live anywhere,” Botti said (from a hotel room). “I’ve given up all the trappings that people define as their life’s goals. So I don’t have a family, I don’t have a dog or a cat or a plant.”

It wasn’t always easy in the early days – for some time he struggled to get work. Then the British pop singer Sting saw him play, and asked him to share the stage. That lasted two years and after that Botti’s career was made.

Indeed Botti once said he had four pieces of advice for other people wanting to make a career in jazz. “Practice, practice, practice and be friends with Sting.”