OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival: Shenzhen, China, October 8-23, 2012
That said, the first concert of OLJF 2012-a Norwegian double bill of pop-electronic duo Streifenjunko and guitarist Kim Myhr-was a statement that the OLJF is committed to promoting modern, creative music, and there's arguably nowhere more creative than Norway these days. Streifenjunko is trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen Lønning, a long-standing duo whose work orbits the improvisation scene in Norway. The venue was Old Heaven Bookstore, an intimate setting which seemed more attuned to poetry readings, but the advantage of the limited, closely packed seating was that the audience observed an almost church-like reverence during the captivating one-hour performance.
Guitarist Kim Myhr is not your typical one-man-and-acoustic-guitar act, and his furiously hypnotic wall-of-sound opening certainly made an impact on the audience. Grace, a 19-year-old student said afterwards: "I have never listened to music like that before. It was very powerful; also frightening at times." Whilst full of respect for jazz tradition-and there was plenty of classical/mainstream jazz in the program-the curators' stated intention with OLJF is to seek innovation in the artists they book, so "powerful" and "frightening" are just about on the nose.
Myhr, who had already performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, before completing his tour in Kunming, was impressed by the audience in Old Heaven Bookstore: "It was a great gig. The room was full and the audience seemed receptive to the music. They seem open to different things." At OLJF 2011, the Norwegian trio In The Country performed, and in addition to Streifenjunko and Myhr, OLJF 2012 also presented MonkeyBar, a duo of Steinar Nickelsen on keyboards/vocals and Erik Nylander on drum machine who improvised around pop and techno beats. OLJF has not wasted any time in introducing its audience to an exciting cross-section of Norway's abundant musical talent.
There was plenty for fans of more mainstream jazz to cheer about as well. New York lent OLJF three of its finest contemporary saxophonists in Brian Girley-leading his quintet, Movement-clarinetist/bass saxophonist Oran Etkin, and Michael Blake, whose trio included the outstanding guest trombonist Samuel Blaser. Blake and Blaser combined beautifully throughout, weaving mellifluous harmonies and arresting counterpoint. The packed hall erupted when Blake, as is his custom, played two saxophones simultaneously. When I told one of the festival volunteers that Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to play three reed instruments at once, her mouth dropped open: "I hope he comes to Shenzhen next year," she said excitedly, and seemed quite disappointed when I told her this was impossible because he's no longer alive. However, I assured her that in Blake, she had witnessed one of the very best saxophonists on the modern jazz scene, which cheered her up
Jazz is relatively new to China, and certainly the young audience at OLJF was mostly unaware of jazz's history or its protagonists. The various movements of jazz through the past century, the musical controversies, the struggles of black jazz musicians, the modern bickering over propriety, were also not known to most. The youngsters-how often do you read that in a review of jazz concert?-came with an open mind and based their judgments purely on how much the music connected to them there and then.
This open-mindedness of the audience, uncluttered by the baggage of jazz's often pressing history, was one of the positives that many of the musicians commented upon during the 16 days. Drummer Laurent Robin, who led a formidable double-keyboard trio of Benjamin Moussay and Cedric Hanriot in Old Heaven Bookstore, said: "It's so refreshing to play to an audience who don't care if your music doesn't sound like [saxophonist] Charlie Parker. In Europe it's so boring when people say, 'hey, that's not jazz!' Give me a break! Do you think if Charlie Parker or [trumpeter] Miles Davis were still alive, they would be doing the same old stuff?" Robin, like the majority of the musicians at OLJF, expressed a desire to tour more frequently in China, precisely because of this refreshing blank page that young Chinese audiences often represent.