While the Jazz Marathon brought leading musicians to Hong Kong, this year's version probably best demonstrated the breath and depth of this musical genre, with the various crossovers and fusions from classical to rock and from Chinese to Afro-Cuban, and so on.
Highlighting its world music jazz, Quadro Nuevo, a Munich-based quartet bearing a Spanish name, manifests their global charm. Their music is European response to that of Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern.
Despite their classical music training background, they have explored different playing techniques with their instruments to deliver their own borderless exotic sound.
By fusing the blues and Arabic music elements, "Songs of the Road" led the audience to wander around continents from America to Europe and even to Asia. To show the quartet's worldly appeal, saxophone/ clarinet player Mulo Francel, who likes Chinese ink paintings, introduced the name of the song in Cantonese and Japanese, triggering laughter and applause.
Another piece co-written by the group and an Egyptian oud player made one want to dance to the lively rhythm.
They have projects working with musicians and instrumentalists of diverse backgrounds from Asia, Middle East, Africa, to Latin America.
This time on the stage, the harp played the role of the oud, pear-shaped lute-like instrument popular in West Asia and North Africa, while the clarinet was like a flute-like ney prominently used in the Middle East, accompanied by a frame drum.
In response to the refugee issue in Germany, Francel said the group was amazed at the diverse backgrounds of a Turkish city Antakya and wrote a song after it. Antakya is near the Syrian border. With alternate dominations by the Europeans and the Arabs, both Islam and Christianity are still practiced in Antakya, where one can find mosques and churches. The Muslims and the Christians live together, and Turkish, Arabic, and Armenian are spoken there.
The oriental beats of "Antakya" were not only achieved by the percussion but the harp too, accompanied by a melody that aired an "east meets west" touch.
The group's performance ended well with "Tu vuo fa l'americano" or "You want to be American" in English. The woodwind instruments gave an occidental romantic jazzy ambience while the accordion reminded one the bandoneon used in the Argentine tango and the relation to the European immigrants.
Some of the instruments used are specially made and tuned. For instance, the huge double bass is made to fit tall bassist D. D. Lowka and similar to a cello, it can be played with a bow too. Having played music with each other since teenagers, Francel said they experimented and attempted musical adventures from time to time. He likened music playing to ball games, which lots of open space to play around despite rules.
In another performance, well-known local jazz pianist Ted Lo delivered his compositions with the 11-member Chinese Ensemble on Jazz. They were joined by Moroccan percussionist Rhani Krija.
Lo performed some of his latest compositions. One of them was yet to be named. He simply named the piece with its time signature 15/16.
The intro captured the audience with the spectacular percussion performance of Krija.
A groovy touch was manifested by "Mongkok Funk" achieved by the fusion of keyboard and a series of Chinese instrument solos including woodwind suona, stringed huqin and guzheng, etc.
The experimental performance was staged only after two rehearsals, said Lo, who added there are many sharps and flats in his compositions that would be challenging to the musicians as the Chinese music is different from that of the west.
Spanish band Patax fused pop with Latino rhythms as they improvised a few Michael Jackson's pieces such as "Thriller" accompanied by funky bass and percussion parts as well as tap dance. Patax's energetic acid jazz performance was joined by local jazz vocalist Angelita Li in "Billie Jean."
Last but not least was the performance of versatile American drummer Steve Smith. As the drummer for the rock band Journey, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Being a jazz drummer at heart, he founded his jazz band Vital Information NYC Edition in 1983. The band comprises some of the best jazz musicians including keyboardist Mark Soskin, who has been on tour with saxophonist Sonny Rollins for 15 years; guitarist Vinny Valentino whose playing sounds bluesy; and bassist Baron Brown who swings hard.
Their performance including "Open Dialogue," improvisations of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning," and John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.", that had vividly showcased the vibrant jazz scene in NYC. Another piece featuring Konnakol, the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in a type of South Indian music, would leave a deep impression in the audience. Smith articulated Konnakol into the tune that gave a mystical and psychedelic touch while the rhythm accelerated.
He said jazz musicians are great because they have mastered their instruments and have a deep understanding of music theory, harmony, rhythm, and chord progressions, that allow them to improvise, during which they are composing.