Last Weekend’s Jazz Festival… and Some Thoughts On Improving For Next Time

By the way, last weekend I also took in an evening of jazz with my friend Nick.

It was, in some ways, a disappointment, though I always have a good time with Nick so all was not lost. As a brief summary:

정성죠 Big Band, well, we mostly missed them, arriving only in time to see them back some vocal jazz. Not my thing, and more depressingly, they played some charts that I myself played in high school and university big bands… and not as well as we played those charts, back in the day.

The Nana Quartet came next, I think? My impression was she was a Korean-American, and she was an alright singer, but didn’t blow me away. The band played crowd-pleasing mainstream vocal jazz.

Florence Davis and her band, a French outfit,  was the most interesting vocal group. They did some really interesting stuff in terms of orchestration, with violin and soprano saxophone combining to produce some haunting harmonies. I was disappointed when she went ahead and did a crowd-pleaser too — not because I’m against pleasing the crowd (well, maybe I am) but because it was a particularly uninteresting version of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,”  quite sloppily arranged and mechanically performed, that was a whole category lower in quality compared to everything else they’d done before.

Then came the absolute nadir of the evening: some utterly untalented Korean guy in an army uniform sang (and, well, didn’t dance so much as prance about the stage, trying to get people to clap on 1 and 3 — the wrong beats for almost all popular music while singing). When I say he sang, I’m being generous; sometimes, he crooned so badly I winced, and it was after all only to a standard pop-group karaoke setup. No live band. No jazz, actually. It was mainstream pop crap. And guess what? He got the best receiption. People were cheering, clapping their hands (on one and three), and when he finished off with a song by Ne-Yo, people got up and left.

Then came the good stuff — albeit with one problem. I have no doubt that David Sanchez is a serious horn player. He and his band played some very interesting and challenging stuff. They all had chops in such quantities they could have subsidized an army of Shaolin monks.

But Sanchez had a weird habit — perhaps picked up in small club environments — of backing away from the mic halfway through his solos, either playing off to the side of the stage, or facing the drums with his back to the audience. When you’re playing for a large audience, in an outdoor setting, where all the other instruments are miked — and by a Korean sound engineer, ie. someone who will do very minimal adjustment of levels along the way, in my experience — this means the saxophone will automatically be inaudible.

(And actually, as with my own experience in the past, many Korean sound engineers have very little idea how properly to mix a sax anyway. It’s almost always treated as a backing instrument even when it’s soloing front and center, overpowered by drums and bass and, if there’s a guitar, the guitar is never treated as accompaniment even when that’s all it’s ever doing.)

So it was a struggle at times to hear Sanchez, which was a pity, because it was some of the utterly baddest sax I’ve heard in years.

All of this has some thoughts running through my mind about how those putting on jazz festivals in Korea don’t quite get it:

  1. Most jazz music is instrumental today. Having a lineup of a bunch of singers may attract people, but it also encourages people to expect jazz to be some kind of “jazzy” variation of pop music.
  2. Most instrumental jazz is improvised. The program at the show had set lists — with the names of the songs all written out ahead of time, and — stunningly — lengths for each song. Whoever requested that information just doesn’t know how jazz works, period. See, jazz musicians? They improvise. They work out musical ideas spontaneously, and sometimes it takes a little longer to work out an idea. So time lengths for songs doesn’t make sense for them, the way it does for pop singers using karaoke-styled backing tracks.
  3. Real jazz shows are not 40 minutes long. 40 minutes is a set, of which jazz musicians normally perform two, three, or (if they’re really great  and hard core and get enough cries for encores) even four in the course of a show, with breaks in between. Flying across an ocean to play for 40 minutes one night, and 40 minutes the next, feels like it’s almost not worth it, artistically. This is something like what I experienced with showcase gigs my old band (a rock band) was expected to perform in back 2002-2004. Bands would get together, take a bus to Seoul, and then play a gig that consisted of, say, 3-5 songs per band. Four hours of driving, 20 minutes of performance, three or four hours of sitting through everyone else’s micro-performances (and a third of the time being taken up by bands going onto and off the stage) then four hours driving home.  An improvement would be setting up different stage venues, and then having each band play a few sets, and letting attendees wander around, listening to whatever they like.
  4. MCs are a scourge on all live Korean performances. I’m sorry, but I would pay extra to attend a festival where there was no stupid MC up on stage blathering into a microphone between sets, and still blathering when the next band is ready to start playing, because he loves the sound of his own voice. I know, audiences expect it here. But it’s a nuisance and they would learn to love its absence over time, I’m sure — just as we have in the West, for we once had these talentless doofuses around for live concerts too, long ago. In the pamphlet, the MC is pictured as a guy in his 40s, wearing a pink suit jacket, a pink tie, and white-framed glasses, along with a goofy grin. Exactly the sort of guy I don’t want blathering at me because, yeah, I’d wager he has no love for, no interest in, and no idea about jazz music. He’s just some microcelebrity they managed to book for the evening — as unnecessary as his blabbering. I wish they’d just do what jazz festivals elsewhere do — play some prerecorded music between sets.
  5. The only thing that I hate more than MCs are the crappy pop acts that seem to get thrown in (or even dominate) such festivals, presumably because the organizers don’t know or care what jazz is, or because they want to “hook” the crowd. Trust your audience isn’t a pack of gibbering morons. Trust that they will appreciate good music when they hear it. The ones who hang around, will. The others will leave. Period.
  6. The point of live performances is to let people see the show. But at this show, the audience was constantly being blasted by floodlights, and Nick pointed out to me that I wasn’t the only one holding my arm up to block the blinding light. It actually hurt every time, and while the video footage looked better because of the lighting effects, it was not worth it in terms of the cost to the audience.

Though, on point 5, bitch though I might, when they used the floodlights right, like shining them onto a nearby hillside, the effect was lovely:

Seoul City International Jazz Festival

… I just wish it hadn’t been so damned blinding!

Ah well, for those who are interested, there are still a few big jazz shows coming. I mentioned one by Keith Jarrett in October — there’s also the Incheon Jazz Festival happening next month, with a show by trumpeter Nicholas Payton:

You can see that he is, like Sanchez, more about the traditional mainstream jazz than I’d be excited about were in a place where freer stuff were more widely available… still, it’s real jazz, which is nourishing even if it’s a different branch than the one I consider home.

2 thoughts on “Last Weekend’s Jazz Festival… and Some Thoughts On Improving For Next Time

  1. Seoul City completely botched this festival, once again. They hired this company to handle putting it together and the company had no clue as to do their job or what was Jazz and wasted money and time. I heard from Sanchez that the company almost failed to get their visa paperwork done on time.
    Additionally, they hired some groups who I’ve never heard of before — like the French group — who are pretty much a hotel lounge band and definitely NOT JAZZ. The sound crew was not experienced at all either, as you rightly pointed out.

    I notice the upcoming Inchon Jazz Festival is already far better than Seoul City’s because a private organizer, who knows the music, is handling this instead of a pack of city bureaucrats who don’t care and don’t know. Seoul City should quit since they are obviously incompetent and incapable of doing business the right way. Jesus, if the North Koreans ever invade, I hope they kill these fools first because that seems the only way to improve how Seoul CIty does business.

    1. R. Elgin,

      Yeah, I was wondering if Sanchez was annoyed at something. All that playing solos with his back to the audience and all…

      I’m not surprised that it was bureaucrats who screwed it up, and hired some company that had no frigging clue, and yes, they really should just give control of the festival to people who actually know and love jazz music. Of course, that would involve giving away control, and why would they do that? I should have guessed it was a company, since, frankly, all the light show and stuff suggested they were more accustomed to working with pop groups.

      The French band — there was one tune that was pretty good — orchestrated well enough to make me stop bitching and listen. It was, at least, closer to some stuff I’ve seen touted as jazz here. But I’ll be honest: sometimes it seems they’ll hire any white person (especially a European) who sings, over a real live black jazz musician.

      And: I really wish they would/could/cared to cooperate with local clubs so that visiting musicians could have gigs booked there after the main show. I would have loved to see Sanchez up close in a smaller club. This is normal for rock groups and even for jazz groups playing abroad — In the old days, you could sometimes see Terence Blanchard and people of that caliber in the crappy little local jazz club in Saskatoon during big festivals, because they’d have extra gigs lined up at night after the big festival gigs, or just show up at festival-organized jam sessions.

      Here’s the really, truly sad thing: the Java Jazz Festival is among the major jazz fests in the world. Jakarta, with its messed-up everything, in a country that can still without exaggeration be called “developing”, can put together a real jazz festival that brings in a dozen major jazz musicians, while Seoul can’t even put together a jazz festival at all.

      (And I have to say this: one thing about Jakarta is, when you walk around, you see art and live music everywhere. Everywhere. Sure, a lot of it is retreads of American pop, but you can, in a frigging random shopping mall, hear a live singer do a vocal version of Chick Corea’s “Spain” accompanied by a piano trio, while looking at paintings by a local avant garde artist. In a shopping mall. I don’t know if Javan culture was more artistic to begin with, or not, but I will say they have comparable enough histories — a brutal foreign occupation, followed by a series of dictatorships — to make me wonder what went wrong in Korea in terms of the arts.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *