Jazzing Chinese Folk: The Solitary Bird CD Release Party @ TwoCities Gallery

On Friday night I attended the release party of the Solitary Bird CD, recorded earlier this year by three musicians in Shanghai, Steve Sweeting, Jeremy Moyer, and Coco Zhao.  I've known Coco since the late 1990s when he emerged as one of Shanghai's first Chinese jazz singers.  In fact, Coco and his band played at my wedding here in 1999.  Since then he has dedicated himself to jazz singing and lyrical composition and has greatly expanded both his repertoire and his skill set as a singer.  Jeremy Moyer plays several percussion instruments as well as bowed instruments such as the erhu, and he plays them all very well.  In this concert he was playing a coconut fiddle from Taiwan.  Steve Sweeting is an American jazz pianist who has been living here in Shanghai for the past five years or so along with his family.  Before I go on to discuss the concert, a disclosure is in order:  for the past two years I've been taking piano lessons with Steve regularly, and also participating in his vocal workshops.  

Coco Zhao performing at the Solitary Bird CD release party, TwoCities Gallery, Shanghai

I first met Steve three years ago when I moved back to Shanghai.  One evening I saw him perform at one of his many concerts in the TwoCities Gallery at the 50 Moganshan Lu Arts District.  He was accompanying another local jazz singer named Jasmine Chen.  During the performance, they did something that he called a "one minute aria," where they asked the audience to come up with a name, a profession, a problem, an emotion, and a solution, plus a musical style, and Jasmine and Steve each improvised a song around the audience's choices.  It was a great way of bringing the audience into the performance and at the same time showcasing the art of improvisation.

Steve Sweeting

I knew the two women who ran the gallery's day to day affairs, Eva Ting and Chelsea Horvath, from a singing group we'd put together around the holiday season.  After the concert we all went out to the Velvet Lounge for drinks and I got to meet Steve in person.  A few months later, I saw him perform at TwoCities again.  This time the theme he'd chosen was a history of jazz piano styles, complete with a powerpoint presentation.  As usual, a dedicated audience of about 150 people showed up to see his performance.  It was during that event that I realized that Steve was just the teacher I'd been looking for all these years.  So I approached him with the idea of taking piano lessons.

By that time I was already dusting off my piano skills, long dormant since my early grad school years.   I'd been trained to play classical piano tunes (not too well, but passingly) and had dabbled in some jazz in high school, but never took it very far.  Yet it had always been a goal of mine to learn the art of improvisation ever since my dad, who has always been a huge jazz afficionado, first introduced me and my sister to the music of Fats Waller when I was a little boy.  After all these years, I figured it was a now or never thing.  The Fats in me was calling to come out and party.  

At first Steve seemed a bit reluctant to take on a new student, since he was already mentoring a group of mostly Chinese musicians, many of whom play professionally.  But I convinced him that I was serious about learning, and he agreed to take me on.  

Steve also encouraged me to join his vocal workshop, which he runs out of his home, a lovely three-storey unit in an old red brick neighborhood in the Jing'an Temple district.  The living room is dominated by Steve's grand piano, a Yamaha.  With Steve presiding from his piano bench, the vocal workshop meets for ten weeks over spring and fall, involving two hour sessions on Sundays where we work on both group exercises and individual songs.  I hadn't done any group singing since I was in the Chamber Singers at Dartmouth--one of my greatest college experiences by the way.  So it was a real treat to get back into group singing and learn improv singing at the same time.

Between the piano lessons and the vocal workshops that Steve runs from his house (I've been in on three of them so far), I can say with great sincerity and truth that while my skills are still subpar, my understanding and appreciation of our rich American jazz and blues heritage has expanded hugely, as has my basic appreciation of music.  Basic is the key term here--just about every lesson I've had with Steve is about getting back to basics, working on the melody and bassline of a song in every key and using the metronome to keep time.  He's also taught me and the other workshop members a great deal about how to internalize a song and keep it in your memory.  I've come out of these lessons with a much stronger appreciation of the American jazz standards and how painstakingly they were written, both the lyrics and the music.

Jeremy Moyer

Since I started studying with Steve, I've filmed just about all of his performances at the TwoCities Gallery.  Over the past two years he has worked with several locally based musicians on a range of themes including the works of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill.  This time he and Coco and Jeremy were celebrating the release of their new CD, a collection of Chinese folk songs that have been jazzified.  The set they performed over a 90-minute concert included songs attributed to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan among other places.  Normally those three place names would be appearing together in an article about the problematic situation of Chinese geopolitics, but thankfully this event was all about different cultures coming together and harmonizing with each other through the vehicle of music.  

Coco carried the evening, singing with great verve and style and showing off his shining personality with Steve and Jeremy playing supporting roles.  

Another singer named Yue Yan also took the stage for a couple of tunes including a duet with Coco.  More ensconced in the folk tradition but branching out into jazz and blues, Yue Yan has also been coming to our vocal workshops.  She has performed with Steve before in another series on regional folk tunes, some of which she adapted herself.  

I've promised Steve a copy of the film I made of the event, and he will choose some songs to put up on their website dedicated to the CD, so I won't presume to make that choice for them.  The images that I've chosen to accompany this entry are all stills from the film I shot.  I highly recommend that people buy a copy of their CD and listen to the tunes themselves, as I'm sure you'll agree this is a unique collaboration.  Then again, those among you who are familiar with my book Shanghai's Dancing Worldand previous entries I've made on this subject will know that Shanghai has a long tradition of artfully mixing Western jazz music with Chinese folk tunes.  Steve and Coco and Jeremy and Yue Yan are definitely carrying on the Shanghai tradition of blending the best of East and West.