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The complete guide to Shanghai’s 5th JZ Music Festival
There’s something very primal about a concert en plein air. Musicians offer their sounds to one and all, rhythms and melodies course along the breeze and folks from age 3 to 93 lounge around as the grass tickles their souls and soles. For many, it’s an experience of a lifetime. There’s a handful of outdoor music festivals in China that feature international artists, and here in Shanghai, we have the JZ Group to thank for bringing us our very own festival year after year since 2004.

The festival has long been a labor of love for Ren Yuqing (known affectionately as Lao Ren around the jazz community), the owner and co-founder of JZ Club. Old Shanghai hands will remember the opening of the original JZ Club on Fenyang Lu in 2003, which was closed within a year – in the hiatus before opening the club’s current location on Fuxing Lu, Ren turned his attention to another dream: a Shanghai music festival. Promoted for the first few years as mainly a jazz festival (sharing a commonality with the club), the festival has since incorporated a wider range of acts, such as rock, R&B, reggae, Latino and electronic music. “Jazz incorporates everything,” says Ren. “The heart of the festival is to make people party, make people dance.”

Mark Elliott, the festival’s booking manager for international acts, also notes an official change in this year’s edition: “We changed the name from last year’s ‘Shanghai Jazz Festival’ since this year’s music selection will be more inclusive, not only focusing on jazz but other music genres as well.” In step with the festival’s growth, attendance has skyrocketed in the past few years, from 5,000 in 2006 to 12,000 in 2007 and 30,000 last year. To compensate for the swelling audience members, this year’s festival will take place in Shanghai’s largest green area, Pudong’s Century Park. “It’s a natural growth,” says Lao Ren. “We’ve always done it in the center of the city, but last year’s [festival] was totally sold out – we even had to turn people away.” He places the new festival grounds’ capacity at 50,000 (which amazingly, occupies only the southwestern corner of the park). “It’s a little bit big for now,” he admits, “but we’ll grow into it. I want it to be [the festival’s] permanent home.”
Aside from the change in venue, this year’s festival lineup is one of its most ambitious yet. Rock and electronic music have been given their own stages, expanding the fesival space to three stages: the main stage (Rock & Folk), the jazz stage and a DJ stage (dubbed the Electrograss Stage), with speakers pumping from one in the afternoon to about ten at night. The main festivities are in Pudong, but there’s still plenty of action in Puxi, says Lao Ren, referencing Dee Dee Bridgewater’s opening night performance, as well as the afterparties at JZ Club and Cotton Club, which have become something of a festival tradition – performers head over to throw down a couple pints and jam together after the day’s performances. Local bassist EJ Parker’s best memories from last year’s festival involved getting crazy with Laura Fygi at the end of the night.

To help make it all happen, Ren’s got a squadron that’s been busting tails to bring this year’s festival from blueprint to reality. “[I want to bring] good music to the audience, not necessarily what is the most popular or just what I like,” he says, mentioning that a good mixture of international and Chinese acts helps to attract both Shanghai’s local residents as well as its expatriates. Towards that end, he and Elliott have been attending festivals and conferences around the world to find international acts that will resonate with Shanghai audiences, while on the home front, JZ Group performance manager Lina Chen has been confirming the Chinese performers. The international and Chinese acts will be split on the Main and Jazz stages, with rock, reggae, funk and acid jazz ruling the Main Stage, and Dixieland jazz, jazz fusion of all sorts and contemporary jazz on the Jazz Stage. The festival’s DJ lineup has been left to local promoter Nathan Michael, whose Electrograss concept has been adopted by the festival – his stage features mainly domestically-based acts, starting each day with mellow hip-hop or reggae vibes, then moving into party mode, with drum n’ bass and techno DJs finishing off the nights.

Ren’s team is committed to channeling a true festival vibe to stimulate all senses. There will be food and beverages for sale this year to keep the crowd alive (a much-needed improvement from last year). Sound engineering should be on the mark, as Ren’s hired a professional team from Beijing that has supported Cui Jian in the past. Locating slightly outside of the city center should also help with noise complaints (surrounding residents have clamored for shut down in past years). A special arts and crafts area should also satisfy festival-goers’ thirst to browse and shop as local artisans show off their wares.

It’s certainly a helluva lot to look forward to this month, and even if you aren’t a fan of music, there’s no better way to spend a weekend than with friends and family in the ‘great outdoors’ of Century Park. So bring your mats and mates and show your support for Shanghai’s very own homegrown music fest.

Dee Dee Bridgewater kicks off the opening night
Before the festivities take off over in Century Park, the music will begin on a more classical note with an evening at Puxi’s Yunfeng Theater, which should be an ideal venue for the elegance of headliner Dee Dee Bridgewater. Ren hopes that the composed concert setting will provide Dee Dee’s audiences with a more comfortable and intimate experience to listen to the dulcet voice of the jazz entertainer.

Dee Dee’s ready to take us on a magical musical journey with her magnetic voice, which can lull you into dreamland or entice you to kick up your heels on the dance floor. This sophisticated lady has been singing and scatting with famous cats from the American and Parisian jazz scenes since 1969. Backing her up will be Nicholas Bouloukos and the JZ All Star Big Band, whose fifteen or more members are sure to get your buttons a-rattle. Bouloukos has already had preliminary conversations with the down-to-earth diva and so far we’ve heard that they will be presenting a set based on Dee Dee’s Grammy-winning tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Dear Ella. International artists often bring their own bands, but when they don’t, it gives our very own musicians a chance to shine.

Before Dee Dee takes the stage, an ensemble made up entirely of Shanghai’s own Chinese musicians will be putting together an opening set as Jazz Shanghai. Bouloukos mentions that this act is the one that he’s most looking forward to at this year’s festival. All sorts of local talent will be congregating on stage: mischievous melodies by our own dulcet diva Coco Zhao, mellow and intense riffage from guitar guru Lawrence Ku, bop-worthy tempos from pianist Huang Jian Yi and many others. For fans of classical jazz and supporters of local talent, this evening is one not to miss.

Main Stage lineup
The main stage for the Festival, Rock & Folk will be hosting all sorts of music that’s basically neither jazz nor electronic. Headliners this year will be playing around 6.30pm both nights. Saturday features South Africa’s Freshlyground, whose funky beats impressed Lao Ren when he was at Capetown’s music festival. Sunday there’s a double-header starting with China’s godfather of rock (as he’s generally known in the media), Cui Jian, and the UK’s jazz-rap-funk fusion band Us3. Outside of the headliners, the Rock & Folk acts are a mix of local performers and Chinese pop and rock artists from out of town. Lao Ren mentioned that the underlying theme in selecting the Chinese acts is to portray twenty years in China’s rock scene.
Saturday’s daytime madness will begin around 1.30pm, when local legend Sugar Mama, aka Jacqui Staton, will be crooning the blues under the sun instead of her usual spotlight at the Cotton Club. Next up will be rock/indie singer Wang Xiaokun, aka Thirteen. Thirteen was the 2006 champion of Myshow (China’s American Idol). Although he’s performed and recorded pop music based on record label demands, Thirteen’s heart is in his unreleased rock n’ roll tracks – expect to see him really rock out. After Wang, the JZ Latin Project will have every stem of grass a-jiggle with its Latino beats. The adorable indie pop star Zhang Xuan from Taiwan, aka Deserts Chang, will bring her acoustic guitar and coffee-house vibe to the stage, cooling off the audience after an hour of Latin jive. Then it’s headliner Freshlyground before the last act of the night, Chinese rocker Zheng Jun. Zheng’s music incorporates soulful vocals with rocker beats and Chinese instrumentals – chances are you’ve heard his 2001 cover version of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow.’ That’s it for Saturday... if you’re hankering for more, head over to JZ or Cotton Club for the afterparty jam sessions!

Sunday kicks off with one of our own, Shanghai’s progressive rocker crew Cold Fairyland, featuring vocalist and pipa player Lin Di. Expect some innovative rhythms with Chinese instrumentals. Lions of Puxi are next, holding up the Shanghai banner with reggae-ska flair. If you’ve never seen this hip crew of French and Mauritian players in action around town, there’s no better time than amongst the, er, weeds of Century Park. Zhang Chu, China’s king of melancholy rock ballads, will follow, crooning out his heart-breaking stories – even if you can’t understand Mandarin, his vocals should be expressive enough. Nine-man band Bernie’s Lounge provides a timely pick-me-up after that – their leading lady Mapi Quintana should raise your spirits with their funky Netherland grooves. By this point in the evening, you should be well ready for headliners Cui Jian and Us3 to bring the Rock & Folk stage to a solid close.

These funky fresh fusion masters of South Africa are led by the beautiful and magnetic Zolani Mahola. Her husky voice is the perfect focal point for the band’s music, whether she’s singing in accented English or in Xhosa (one of South Africa’s many official languages). The band incorporates African percussion with all sorts of instruments, including the flute, mbira (a finger xylophone), harmonica, violin and the usual rhythm section (guitar, bass, drums). They’ve been rocking the global scene since opening for Robbie Williams during his South African tour, but this will be their first time in China. Siya namkela nonke, Freshlyground!

Cui Jian
Everyone in China knows Lao Cui, but what’s less known is the yaogun (Chinese rock n’ roll) mogul’s connection to Shanghai – JZ’s Lao Ren used to play bass for Cui Jian back in the day in Beijing; hence, the support of Cui in the early days of the JZ Club and his appearances at previous JZ Festivals. Raised in a Korean-Chinese household of performers, Cui began as a classically trained trumpeter but rose to fame wielding a guitar circa 1985. One of China’s more controversial musicians, he was banned from holding large-scale (not to mention, outdoor) performances in Beijing in the nineties; the Beijing ban was finally lifted in 2005, and he’s been increasingly active since then. If you haven’t yet been acquainted with the godfather, you’ve got an hour on Sunday at about 6.50pm to bask in his glory. Lao Cui, Shanghai huan ying ni!

In case there’s any question, Us3 is pronounced “us,” as in you and I, “three,” rather than “you ess three,” which would be confusing since they hail from the United Kingdom, rather than the United States. Us3 burst into popular culture circa 1993 with their massive hit ‘Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),’ which heavily sampled Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’ Since that jazz-hip-hop-rap fusion masterpiece, Us3 has been mixing with all sorts of different band members and styles in the past sixteen years, covering ground from hip-hop to spoken word, Latin to Indian beats and drum’n’bass to R&B. Their Sunday night performance will feature founder Geoff Wilkinson and an eight-man backing group (including one DJ and two rappers). Alright fellas, let’s get it goin’ on!

Jazz Stage line-up
Jazz fusion is what the crowd can expect on this year’s Jazz Stage, which will be hosted by local sax player Alec Haavik. Concert organizer Elliott points out that besides traditional or contemporary jazz acts, many of the invited artists on the Jazz Stage are “not strictly jazz” but have jazz roots.

Saturday’s first act, however, pays tribute to the old days of jazz mecca New Orleans. The Isradixie Band, as their name suggests, hail from Israel and channel 20s style Dixieland jazz, complete with Panama hats and striped suits. The UK-based GMF, aka Global Music Foundation, comes next – their raison d’être is to promote jazz and world music not only through performances, but also through educational workshops (some of which they’ll host at the Electrograss Stage). Beijing jazz bassist and guitarist Liu Yue, famous for melding contemporary jazz with Chinese music and instrumentals, is third, followed by a familiar (and beautiful) face – Denmark’s singing sensation Sinne Eeg (pronounced “See-na Eee-g”), who’s been regularly visiting Shanghai since her stint at the House of Blues and Jazz a few years back. The Danish front continues with Ibrahim Electric, known for melding jazz with Afro-beats, funk and surf. The final act begins at 7.40pm and we’re in for a treat: Lawrence Ku’s Red Groove Project bring jazz funk to the stage with special guest Lao Ren (yes, it’s true!) on bass. Rumor has it that they will be debuting the song ‘Ren’s Zen,’ written by Alec Haavik, so watch out for that – drummer Chris Trzcinksi may even be rapping!

Sunday kicks off with a jazz fusion troupe from Taipei, Sizhukong. ‘Sizhu’ refers to the silk and bamboo of traditional Chinese instruments, which the band is known for using. They’ll have flutes (dizi, xiao), lutes (liuqin, ruan) and fiddles (erhu) all on hand for their performance. Finnish jazz trumpeter (and drummer) Verneri Pohjola comes next – his noted musical inspirations include movie soundtracks such as Back to the Future III. If that strikes your fancy, don’t miss Verneri’s appearance with Alec Haavik’s crew at the JZ Saturday afterparty the night before. From there, we head to the French-y side of the world (Quebec and Paris) with saxophonist and poet Yannick Rieu, who’s been a part of the global jazz scene since 1980. Rieu was in town a few months ago to perform at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center (and to teach a bit at the JZ School). Jazz diva Catherine Lambert is up next with all her Australian charm and curly red hair – fans of Lost In Translation may recognize her as the lounge singer from the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Director Sofia Coppola caught her performing on location and asked her to be in the film. Then we’re back in France with trumpeter Florent Brique, who visits Shanghai every so often with his big band talents. And finally, we land back home with our very own Coco Zhao and the Possicobilities. Coco has been wowing audiences with his charismatic vocals and mischievous personality since the late 90s – if you haven’t caught him yet, you can’t go wrong with doing it in Century Park!

Electrograss Stage line-up
As organizer Nathan Michael mentions, this year’s Electrograss Stage will feature a range of electronic music, beginning with chilled-out beats and building towards party mode. Saturday’s earlier sets feature broken beats by Alan Shanyinde, current resident at Mural and formerly at Glamour Bar. Then local reggae crew Uprooted Sunshine, celebrating their fourth year anniversary this month (look out for an EP release at their Shelter Party this month), goes back to back against mash-ups from the formerly dead Bananas Soundsystem. Next will be Nathan himself as The Melkman, breaking it down funky style with MC Mr. Tsang. Around 7pm the night gets crazier with dubstep and jungle from the Phreaktion Crew, which has been promoting drum’n’bass in China for a decade now – they’ll blend right in to the d’n’b of the Beijing-based Syndicate, featuring DJ Blackie and others, who close out the night.

Sunday starts off with Beijing’s Hotpot party crew, led by former China DMC Champ DJ Wordy. The chillage continues with The Lab Crew and Red Star bringing us hip-hop and funk, before things get even more electro with DJ You Dai (techno/house) and The Void (techno). Then at 7pm you’ll see Dave K on the stage, who you may already know from around town spinning house, deep house and minimal house at places like MAO, Bar Rouge, LOgO, and The Shelter. The night should end strong with local legend Ben Huang, who recently mixed and scratched outdoors at the Modern Sky Festival in Beijing.

If you have a chance to pick up one of the Festival’s flyers, you’ll notice on the left-most column of the schedule there’s a vague reference to “workshop” and “student ensemble.” These workshops, held jointly by JZ School and GMF (see Jazz Stage), give JZ School’s students a chance to perform outdoors and will take place on the Electrograss Stage from 1-3pm. Then the DJs start to spin.

After Parties
The JZ afterparties are legendary. If you’re not passed out from having way too much fun outdoors, don’t miss all the international performers and local musicians jamming together at JZ Club and Cotton Club. Friday night’s afterparty at JZ will be hosted by Theo Croker’s Sextet and Saturday night’s host will be Alec Haavik’s Friction Eight featuring Finnish jazz performer Verneri Pohjola. Sunday at JZ will feature the funky hip-hop crew Starch from Switzerland, flown in just for the afterparty. Not a lot of excuses for calling it an early one on any of these nights!




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