After a bit of time to relax and hang out in Shanghai we were gearing up for our next concert which was at the JZ Festival in Wuhan. Wuhan is one of the largest cities in China and was a five hour train journey from Shanghai. We were looking forward to this one as we were joined by UK trumpeter Steve Fishwick who happened to be over at the same time doing some work for Leeds College of Music. We had never worked with Steve before so we had an hour to run through the material at the soundcheck and figure out the arrangements. Stage time soon approached and the room filled up and we had a great gig playing to yet another full and enthusiastic audience. This was the first time we had performed the material with a second horn and it added a whole new dimension to the music. Steve totally nailed it and the audience clearly appreciated this new exciting and spontaneous addition to the music. After the gig we were all ready to get some sleep and recover from the traveling but instead we were whisked off to a local bar for a few drinks which ended up in a jam session with the local funk band.
Our next stop was the city of Nanjing. This city was the capital of China before Beijing and is home to one of the most prestigious music academies in China which is where we delivered our first or two workshops. They had a particularly large number of saxophone students here all very keen to learn about jazz music. After speaking to one of the saxophone teachers it became clear just how new jazz music is to the Chinese people. There is a growing interest in the music among the younger generation but very few people that have the knowledge to teach it so the result is lots of very proficient students with beautiful sounds and highly developed techniques but no clear idea in terms of applying what they have in a jazz context. It was nice to spend some time with them working on playing blues and demonstrating the fundamentals of stylistic improvisation. We also spent some time on material and albums to get hold of and to study. It is clear to see that jazz music is a new and fascinating thing here and is at the start of growing into something that I am sure will become hugely popular.
The next day we made our way to the other side of the city to give a series of presentations to the students at the NNRA Reading Academy. This was particularly interesting as it was a brand new academy which did not have an arts department so we were dealing with non music students. We played some of our music and explained to them some of the concepts we were working on and generally what it was like to live as a musician day to day in London. We were met with the same levels of enthusiasm that we had seen from the past music students but in very different ways. They were keen to share with us the images and emotions the music we played left them with which was very refreshing and actually quite fascinating for us to hear from them. The day we spent at the NNRA happened to be one of the most rewarding experiences for us which was a surprise as we were expecting it to be quite a challenge. After a few days working with the students of Nanjing we were excited to head to our final destination of Beijing.
Arriving in Beijing was mind blowing, the scale of the city is incredible and hidden among the vast concrete towers are dozens of areas of natural beauty. Our first gig here was at the DDC Club which was a cool small venue with an out door bar and courtyard in the center of the city and a venue that has earned the title of Beijing's favorite music venue for 2015.
Next we had a day off in Beijing so while Eric spent the day at the China drum show hanging out with the likes of Dave Weckl (see photo below!!) Max, Rachel (our tour manager) and myself set out to explore as much of the city as possible. The highlight was definitely the Forbidden City. The forbidden city was once home to the Chinese emperors and closed off to the public. Any attempts to enter the city uninvited were met with the death penalty! Now luckily the majority of the city has been made open to the public and has been immaculately preserved. It is vast and home to some beautiful views, treasures that have been gifted to the emperors who had lived there and also some spectacular shrines and gardens.
After a day of exploration we were ready for a night out with Rachel and some of her friends from Beijing. We were taken to a local "hot pot" restaurant. These kind of establishments are set up with a vat of boiling water in the center of every table. You then order your favorite raw meats that would come thinly sliced. You then cook the meat yourself in the boiling water and eat with various sauces and vegetables. Rachel and her friends ordered for us and first up was a raw sheep stomach! This was definitely one of the most "cultural" meals of the trip!
Before we knew it we were at the last day of the tour and gave a performance and clinic as part of the China Drum Summit. We were sharing the bill with some iconic drummers including Dave Weckl and Billy Cobham. Eric took over answering many questions on approaches to jazz drumming and explaining his approach to the music we perform as Partikel. It was a great way to end the tour performing to such an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.
Getting to spend a month in a country that was totally new to the three of us and that is home to such a hugely rich and interesting culture so far removed from what we are used to in the UK was a real privilege and an experience that we will never forget. We would like to thank Rachel Zhang (www.ihearjazz.com) for tirelessly working on organizing the tour, guiding us through the trip and being so much fun to work with! You are a legend.
We are now past the halfway point of the tour and have made it to Shanghai where we have a bit of time to recharge and reflect on the carnage of the past ten days. This leg of the tour has been more intense with more traveling, less sleep, covering numerous cities and gigs all whilst honoring Eric's Lonely Planet guide itinerary!
From Lijiang we arrived in Chengdu where we had the evening to check out the venue which was part of an old converted weapons factory and try some of the local food which nearly blew our faces off as Chengdu is famous for its spicy food.
The next morning we were up early to get to the Chengdu Panda Research Center which is one of the countries biggest panda conservation projects. We arrived just before feeding time time so managed to see an array of pandas up close feasting on piles of bamboo.
It was then back to the city where we were playing at Mini Live that evening. This was the 'grungiest' venue we had played so far. The new rockier material went down a storm and it felt good to run it through the huge PA at Mini Live. After a few drinks it was back to the hotel where we grabbed a few hours sleep before we were back in the cab at 4am to catch our flight to Guangzhou.
For the next couple of days it was hotels/soundchecks/gigs with no time for much else. Despite the sleep deprivation it didn't feel like the performances suffered and it felt like we were playing some of the best gigs we have done. We have been working on a lot of new material in the lead up to this tour so things are getting much more familiar now and more artistic liberties are being taken.
Another gig done we are back in the taxi at 6am this time for a train to Shenzhen. All of these cities we had never heard of before visiting them and they are all as big if not bigger than London. The scale of this country is truly mind blowing.
Once we found our hotel we were off to the venue for soundcheck. We were playing at T Union in the center of town. It once again had great gear and a big stage but was also a cafe and a music shop at the same time so it felt like a bit more relaxed to play in this setting. Asaf Sirkis's trio were playing at another venue so we went over after our gig to hang out with them before heading back to our hotel.
Another early start to catch our flight to Shanghai. By this time we were so tired we gave in and had our first Starbucks of the trip and made it to Shanghai for our afternoon masterclass at the conservatoire. We then headed to the JZ Club where we played that evening. The room had a great sound and a real 'club' atmosphere. They packed the audience in and they were with us from the moment we played our first note.
After our first lie in in what felt like an eternity we met up with Kevin Glasgow and Tassos Spiliotopoulos from Asaf's band and explored some of Shanghai. We have a few days off and then we are into our last leg of the tour and looking forward to what we have in store.
After three flights and nearly 24 hours of travelling, we found ourselves in the amazing city of Kunming which is near the border with Vietnam. We were picked up from the airport and taken to a hip inner city cafe / library where we had a few hours to recharge before we did a live question and answer session which was broadcast over Chinese radio to help promote our gigs throughout the tour.
We were straight into it the next morning where we delivered a masterclass at the local university and then it was off to the Elephant Arts Centre to sound-check for our first night of the tour where we played to a sold-out audience. We were then taken for our first taste of some 'proper' Chinese food. Half an hour drive through the city and we arrived at a bustling street BBQ. The first dish brought out for us was named 'Ticket to Hell'. We put on a brave face and took a few skewers each (not Eric as he's a veggie!) and went for it. Despite being incredibly spicy it tasted great and actually was nowhere near as spicy as the noodle soup that came out afterwards that can only be described as what it would be like to eat fire! Other highlights included BBQ intestine and the local Kunming tofu delicacy.
After a few hours sleep and the fear of food poisoning a distant memory we returned to the uni to check out some local chinese folk instruments and were treated to a performance by the students. Before long we were back at the Elephant Arts Centre for our second show and just when we thought we could get our first proper night of sleep we were taken off to a late bar where we had an area reserved for us and the local promoters / venue staff to hang out into the early hours.
Day 4 and once we had shaken off the haze from the night before we had some time to do a bit of sight seeing. We were shown around the city by our new friends taking in an inner city temple and the Green Lake but the highlight for us was a few hours drive from the city where we were shown around the Stone Forest.
Our time flew by in Kunming. The kindness and generosity we were shown by everyone we met was mind-blowing and before we knew it we were back at the airport and on our way to our next destination of Lijiang.
Lijiang is a slightly smaller city than Kunming set amongst the mountains at an altitude of 2400 meters above sea level and with the average temperature around 25 degrees we were seriously regretting not packing any shorts. Our first gig was at COART Park and once again the amount of publicity that went into the gig was exceptional so we were lucky enough to play again to a large and very responsive audience. It's great to play to such large and enthusiastic audiences and it's something that pushes the music further into places it hasn't been before. You feel inspired to give more to the audience and to push yourself harder in the moment.
Another gig done and we were taken off and treated to more food and drink. At this bar there was a courtyard area with a DJ, some locally-made (and award-winning) Absinthe and what seemed to be like a free-for-all fire-juggling area! We met a lot of the local musicians and after a few drinks one was keen to show us her fire-juggling skills. Despite nearly burning down the DJ tent she was pretty good!
Next on the agenda we were into the centre of the old town region of Lijiang to play at the more informal setting of the Mug Bar. After the soundcheck we had the opportunity to explore the markets and take in some of the history of the city. The gig was fun and in a way felt more relaxed. Some of our friends from Kunming flew over to see us and there were also some familiar faces from the night before so we had another good hang after the gig.
Lijiang and the surrounding areas are beautiful and we have been lucky enough to see and do some incredible things. We spent some time at Black Dragon Pool, climbed to the top of Elephant Hill, went kayaking amongst the mountains, horse riding in the hills and made it to the highest accessible point of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (4680m above sea level).
Tomorrow we make our way to Chengdu for the next gig which will be the biggest city on the tour so far. Home to 7.5 million and also China's spiciest food!