Beishan International Jazz Festival, China, 19-20 October 2012
Though YouTube is banned in China, the ingenuity that characterizes the Chinese no doubt means there is a way to navigate around the ban, and should any of the audience choose to check out any of the Signe Juhl Quartet's covers on video, they are going to find their way to jazz giants such as singers Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith, trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, saxophonist Eric Dolphy, guitarists Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, violinist Stephane Grappelli, pianists Art Tatum, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk, clarinetist Benny Goodman and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, to name just a handful of artists who have performed these songs in a variety of jazz styles.
The Li Gao Yang Quartet, the first of two Chinese bands, was next up. Li, at just 18 years of age, has been playing saxophone since the age of six, and in a very short time has made a name for himself as a musician to watch out for. Li was one of several artists who officially inaugurated the Hong Kong International Jazz Festival 2011, and this was his second appearance at the Beishan International Jazz Festival. Li is unashamedly old school, and whether on tenor or soprano, his vocabulary drew mainly from bebop and hard bop.
Li's technical command of his tenor was evident from the start of the self-penned "Akane," but there's much more in his bag than mere virtuosity. His barreling solo in tandem with drummer Cameron Reid showed plenty of saxophonist John Coltrane's influence, and like Coltrane, the blues is ever present in Li's voice. Just as impressive, however, was his leadership; quietly commanding the quartet in undemonstrative manner, Li was generous with the space he accorded the other musicians, showing a musical maturity beyond his years.
Tweet: Crazy. High quality. Perfect.
Bassist Rickard Malmsten's "Traveler" slowed things down, with Reid using hands in lieu of sticks and Jim Schneider's electric piano imbuing a gentle melodicism at the song's outset. Extended solos from the bassist and pianist paved the way for the leader's tango-ish tenor solo. On this number and on "Brooklyn Dream," melody lay at the heart of the ensemble interplay. The quartet raised a head of steam on tenor player Sonny Stitt's much covered "Eternal Triangle." If high-octane bebop was new to any of the 18-20-something year-old members of the audience, they certainly got a powerful, authentic introduction to it, with saxophone and drums once again trading phrases in a mise en scene that might have resembled alto player Charlie Parker and drummer Max Roach on 52nd Street in the 1940s.
Li's quartet rounded off an exciting, energetic set with a touch of up-tempo jazz-funk. "222" was straight from the mold of saxophonist Grover Washington, with touches of bluesy electric piano accompanying another telling solo from the leader on tenor. Singer Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?" provided a sunny end note to the most classically jazz-inspired set of the two days, and judging by the crowd's reaction throughout, Beishan is up for more of the same.
Tweet: "Wonderful and magical place!"
Cameroonian-born Dutch singer Ntjam Rosie is a rising vocal talent, as much influenced by soul and R&B as she is by jazz. Her set was largely drawn from her second album, elle (Ntjam Music, 2010) and she won over the audience with her stylish songs and graceful stage presence. Backed by a tight quartet, Rosie opened with "Roof over My Heart," a soul tune colored by the singer's West African roots. The slow burning "Space of You" saw Rosie floating effortlessly in the higher registers.
Unfortunately, the band had to contend with the intrusive noise from a small contingent of dedicated drinkers parked at the bar at the back of the hall. In an otherwise well organized festival, planting the bar inside the concert hall was an unfortunate move and it would be far better for musicians and fans alike if the bar were outside in future editions.
Keyboardist Alexander van Popta lent a jazz vibe to songs like the flowing "Morning Glow" and the seductive, gently grooving "Serre sa Main," sung in French. The beautiful ballad, "Again and Again," underlined the warmth in Rosie's voice, but was over a tad too quickly. "We All Fear Inside" was a touching, soul-bearing number. The French-sung, African-flavored "Elle Part 1" raised the tempo a notch, followed by a fairly faithful interpretation of singer Bill Wither's 1977 hit "Lovely Day," though Rosie couldn't quite match Wither's 18-second-long note towards the song's end.