Jaffa jazzy jiving

Puny size notwithstanding, Israel is a major force in the global jazz marketplace.

(photo credit: PAD STUDIO HAO LIN)
It has been noted by more than one aficionado that jazz is the true world music. That theory is duly supported by the geographic spread of players from the discipline who bring their own personal and cultural baggage to their artistic endeavors. Israel is a prime example. Puny size notwithstanding, Israel is a major force in the global jazz marketplace. China, on the other hand, makes up a fair part of the world’s population but is not noted for its artists from the jazzy line of creative expression.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for not even thinking about the world’s most populous country in the context of jazz. However, if you happen to go to this year’s Jaffa Jazz Festival – the fifth edition of the event – you might be a little disabused of that notion. The lineup for the three day event – September 19-21 – which was devised by perennial artistic director and founder, veteran saxophonist and educator Amikam Kimmelman, features artists from Germany, Russia, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Italy and Brazil. And that’s besides dozens of our own sector leaders and a certain Coco Zhao.
The latter is a Chinese vocalist who delves into numerous areas of jazzy intent. Among the 42-year-old singer’s many avenues of endeavor are a big-band format, an intriguing synergy with Dutch-born vocalist Monique Klemann, and an enticing project based on old nuggets form the heady entertainment era of 1920s and ‘30s Shanghai. That suits this year’s festival theme, which evokes some of the sounds and spirit of the cinematic sphere. 
Zhao says his decision to go for the retro show stems from a number of motives. “There are three reasons I did this project,” he notes. “First, I just really love music from that era. They called Shanghai, back then, the Paris of the Orient. It was a very different time. I always loved those songs. I don’t know why. It just makes me feel nostalgic.” Naturally, the singer wasn’t around to experience those yesteryear vibes for himself when they first emerged, but he hankers after them nonetheless.
He also sees the period known as the Golden Era of Jazz as a marketing tool. “I need to find a way to introduce jazz to Chinese audiences. It is not the typical Chinese music format. It is not easy to get them into it. I needed to find a way. So I thought I would try old-style Shanghai songs so that people can find something they can relate to.” It is, says Zhao, a tried and trusted channel to the public’s hearts and pockets. “Everybody knows those songs, whether they are older, middle-aged or young, so I thought it would be cool to do that.”
Zhao may be keen to draw on the past, but true to his jazzy bent, he had no intention of just recycling treasured nuggets. “I wanted to make the songs sound completely different,” he states. “I wanted to be like a musical surgery doctor,” he laughs.
HIS DECISION to leapfrog over more contemporary times and mine an older seam was also prompted by circumstances surrounding his own life. “People sometimes ask me about Motown [soul music] from the 1960s and 1970s and I’d tell them I have no clue. I grew up in China and I didn’t have access to music from the 1960s to the 1990s.”
A crack appeared in Zhao’s isolation from Western civilization when he was he a student in his late teens in Shanghai. There he came across an American singer and guitarist named Matt Harding who performed a couple of jazzy numbers in a show the youngster attended in the mid-1990s. “I had already started performing, mostly with pop and also some rock, like Nirvana and that kind of stuff,” he recalls. When he caught Harding’s act, it was a life-changer for him.
“We’d never heard a western musician playing live in China before. He played ‘Misty’ and ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ – jazz standards. That was the day I really started getting into jazz.”
Even though the youngster was well and truly inspired, he still had to develop his nascent line of work. “I think the best situation of music is that it should flow naturally, so even if they are two different kinds of music, I try flow them together neatly.” That was a tough proposition, given the very different sonic elements that are inherent to Chinese and English.
“Chinese language is very melodic because we have so many different tones. As a vocalist you evoke the text through the tones.” That might be considered something of an advantage, but the rhythmic side of his mother tongue is far more challenging. “All our words with one syllable, so rhythmically it is not easy to make the singing interesting.”
After all his hard work over the years, Zhao is keen to spread his personal and professional word as widely as possible. “Music is for sharing,” he says. “You can share music with your true heart and your true spirit, with other people and with the people who play with you.”
Zhao may have had a steep incline to navigate but he benefited from some support and wise words of encouragement from a bona fide member of the jazz pantheon. “I accompanied [legendary American vocalist] Betty Carter when she came to China in 1997,” he says. “I went with her from place to place and attended rehearsals, and we talked. That was great. She told me just to listen to my own heart. That was so inspirational for me.”
With that spirited intent and a host of tribute slots across the festival program to such cinematic giants as Nino Rota, Charlie Chaplin, Michel Legrand, Woody Allen and our own The Policeman film classic, the Jaffa Jazz Festival promises some rich entertainment pickings for one and all.
For tickets and more information, phone 03-573-3001 or go to eng.hotjazz.co.il.