About nickhemptonband

Australian jazz musician in New York City. Writing about travel, food, drink, music, books- the stuff that makes the other stuff bearable.

Stimulants, Attack Birds, and a Lovely Pie: Sydney

By my calculations, there are upwards of a metric bunch of restaurants called Bar Italia around the world. But my absolute favourite, and without doubt the only one ever I’ve been to, is Bar Italia. That place is great. It’s in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, which despite being named after an explorer from Prussia (one of those pre-Internet countries) who got lost and was never seen again, is now home to Sydney’s Italian population. And my brother Tim. Tim doesn’t keep coffee around the house due to repeated violent run ins with the French press, so when in Sydney, my day starts at Bar Italia. It was a regular part of my life when I lived here, and then, as now, one coffee there is strong enough to keep me awake well into the afternoon.

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Legal stimulants taken care of, I had a bit of time to kill between gigs, so one day took a stroll through my old stomping ground, the Inner West. When I was a kid it was unfashionable and grotty, but it’s now one of Sydney’s most outrageously expensive areas, where locals look down their noses at blow-ins like me. I paused outside the various hovels I once called home, peered in the windows and rifled through the mailboxes. My only goal that day was to eat a meat pie (it’s as close to a national dish as we get), and drink a beer, which I achieved but not before being yelled at for taking photos of a pub (one in which I used to live, I should say), and being attacked by a large bird for, I assume, taking photos of its tree. Here’s a picture of the pie. A highlight.

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Then began three intense days of grueling toil which any mortal man would call “easy”. On Thursday, a rehearsal in which I displayed my lack of recent big band experience by not remembering any of the old jokes (“watch for my cue” “the near cue?” “no, the far cue”); followed by an hour blatantly lying about the quality of my own work on the radio; then a great night playing jazz at Foundry 616 (which, as I’m required by joke law to say, is far superior to the previous 615 Foundries). I reunited with old mates Andrew Dickeson and Ashley Turner and we swung our way through two sets of favourites in front of an appreciative crowd, some of whom I wasn’t even related to!

On Friday Andrew, Ashley, and I, along with ace guitarist Carl Dewhurst stumbled into Electric Avenue studios to put down an album the old school analogue way: direct to tape. This produces a beautiful warm sound, but unlike digital recording, means there’s no editing, and therefore no mistakes. I made lots of mistakes. We were there for ten hours, but I think we got a pretty good record. I followed this by letting my folks buy the Peking Duck I’d been denied in Peking, and it was bloody delicious.

Sunday was Manly Jazz Festival day. I rode the ferry across Sydney harbour (which I maintain is one of the loveliest experiences available anywhere), and played a quartet set with Sydney trumpet legend Warwick Alder, to a lively crowd that for the whole hour remained actively engaged and intensely focused on their fish and chips. Then a couple of big band sets in which I fumbled my way through the second alto book and tried not to be noticed; interspersed with stretches on the beach, and much longer stretches at the front bar of the Steyne hotel.

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Monday was my last day in town, and a day off, so Tim and I went back to Manly to soak up the last of the atmosphere. It’s a small but charming and well organized festival in a beautiful location, and its egalitarian approach welcomes all comers, not just beret’d jazz nerds. The night finished with a rowdy and good natured jam session where I did my darnedest on a few tunes with saxophonists Andrew Speight and Eric Alexander. I bid the cats farewell over a couple of quiet beers, and headed home to pack for New Zealand. About which I’ll tell you in a few days…

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A bumpy Landing (or Man Has Challenging Taxi Ride; Eventually Finds Hotel)

It was humid and smoggy and I was collapsing beside a 6 lane freeway when it occurred to me I might be in over my head. The smart thing to do in a (very) strange country is to jump in a cab outside the airport and ride to the hotel in style, but that’s too easy for this genius. The Beijing airport express train dropped me at Dongzhimen, an area somewhere near the city centre, and presumably a good spot to start a much shorter cab ride. It was 5:30PM when I hit the street, and if you think rush hour is intense in your town, etc., etc. I jostled my way through throngs of commuters with my horn and suitcase leaving bruises in my wake. I played a game of real-life Frogger to get through the bike lane, and finding myself on some kind of median strip, I thrust out my arm. Ten minutes later a seriously battle-scarred cab honked at me from a middle lane. I dragged my gear through the traffic, dumped it in the trunk, and threw myself into the back seat. Like a good boy scout I had the name of the hotel and the address, in Chinese, on my phone. I showed it to the surly, sweating driver, who stared at it for some time and then proceeded to shout at me in Mandarin. We set off through the traffic, honking, and missing bike riders and pedestrians by millimetres, while my driver stared at my phone and fumed. Clearly the man had no idea where we were going. Eventually he too seemed resigned to that fact, and after ten minutes of hair-raising death-defiance, lurched the car over and motioned me out. I was now nowhere near the train station or my hotel, with not much cash and no wifi. Miraculously I hailed another cab fairly quickly, and showed this guy my phone. That’s about as far as we got- he furrowed his brow and stared for a few minutes before handing the thing back and speeding off. It seemed I was screwed.

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I had a vague idea of the direction of the hotel, thanks to an offline Google map, so I started walking. I figured it would take a couple of hours. After half a mile dragging horn and bags along bumpy, cracked pavements, I reached a big, international-looking hotel– one in which I sorely wished I was staying. I tried to explain my plight to several well-meaning but uncomprehending concierge types, before finding my saviour- a young, friendly, manager with basic English. I stood at her desk, sweating and gasping, while she kindly wrote out more detailed directions to my hotel; and when she presented me with that golden post-it, black with impenetrable script, I knew my troubles were over. With newfound confidence, I bounded back out to the street, found another cab, proudly proffered the driver my scrap of paper, and lay back, secure in the knowledge that my chariot would spirit me away to my luxurious accommodations. We didn’t seem to be moving. I opened my eyes to find the same look of utter befuddlement I’d been witnessing for hours. What the fuck, people. I wasn’t getting out of this cab. If he wanted to swear at me in Mandarin, I had a few choice New Jersey words I could send back. We drove off, driver shaking his head and cursing the entire Western Hemisphere. At this point the only thing left was to turn on my phone’s extremely expensive “roaming” service and call the hotel. They’d sort this out. No answer. What kind of hotel doesn’t answer the fucking phone! Answering the fucking phone is a central part of the hotel business! Then the driver had his phone out, and after stabbing at the screen, handed the thing over to me. I assumed he’d succeeded where I’d failed and reached the hotel, but this was just some friend of his who spoke some English. Next I had to read out to him my interpretation of Chinese place names- for your amusement, they were Huguosi, Xinjiekou, Qiangongyong, and Zhaodengyu- which, even though my pronunciation sounded like a stroke survivor with a mouth full of paper clips, seemed to help more than the actual, specific, detailed information in actual Chinese. We made a few pitstops to ask directions, and I know we passed the same street-corner domino game at least three times, but eventually we screeched to a halt on a corner and I handed over the pittance showing on the meter. Seriously it was like five bucks.

It took me another 20 minutes dragging my crap through back alleys, but eventually I found the Sofu hotel.  Airport to hotel: four hours. I scoured the streets, found the only restaurant open, inhaled some mystery meat on sticks and several litres of Chinese beer, then crashed.

If you go to Beijing and stay at the Sofu Hotel, just remember it’s on Huguosi between Deshengmen and Xinjiekou, near Qiangongyong. Got it?

Food & Whine: NYC-Hong Kong

I’m sitting on a plane between Hong Kong and Beijing, belly full of flaccid noodles and a white wine my peerless palate informs me is the July vintage. The tour’s just begun and I’m complaining already. There are so many insults flung at the modern air traveler, I don’t know why I always focus on the awful, awful food, but that’s really what hurts the most. The upside of this is that when you arrive at your destination, you’re READY. My last two days of meals have all been resignedly endured in airports, planes or hotels, and I’m ready for the real thing. Ducks are one of my favourite animals, whether waddling by the lake, or glistening on the plate, and Beijing is known for them, so stay tuned for roast duck tales.

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The flight from New York to Hong Kong was predictably tough. I get about 12 hours in, with 4 to go, and I tell myself I’m never doing it again. I have lofty goals of productivity, and start by editing videos and writing charts, but before long, survival becomes the only goal. The only way I can imagine it being worse is if I still smoked- the withdrawals made every hour double. I was helped by the knowledge that at the end of this leg was the Airport Novotel. It’s an undistinguished, modern, bland pile, but it’s quiet and comfortable, and the bar serves a fine martini. Two of those on top of jet lag and 24 hours awake, and I’m out like a light.

So I’m on my way to mainland China, tired and bleary, but energised by anticipation. Most of my regularly-patronised websites are blocked by what’s known as the Great Firewall- I have a sneaky little app that’s supposed to be able to dig a tunnel to the other side, but we’ll see if it works. A few days away from Facebook might turn out to be a blessing. And will the Beijingers turn out for an obscure Australian saxophonist? Tell you all about it in the next one.

A Few Words About John Clarke

John Clarke died yesterday, and I’m rather more upset than I would have expected. For non-Australians/New Zealanders, Clarke was a genuine satirist in a time when the word has been diluted and dispersed so freely that it no longer has much meaning. He shed a blinding light on hypocrisy and stupidity and was hilarious while he did it.

Even though he was a presence in my life from my mid teens, when I laughed at Clarke & Dawe on Jana Wendt’s ‘A Current Affair’ without knowing why, I can’t claim to be a John Clarke fan. I don’t own any of his books or DVDs. I didn’t even watch him that often. But it occurs to me that I might have watched him when I needed to. Today hypocrisy is not only widespread and brazen, but generally accepted, and after a while you might start to think that you’re the crazy one. When I started to feel this way, I’d find the latest Clarke & Dawe clip and within seconds I’d feel a weight lift from my shoulders. Someone was calling “bullshit” for me. I don’t think he was trying to change the world; we’re not going to stop the liars and double-dealers, but they were a bit less powerful after John took aim at them. I’ll miss knowing he’s there.

Here’s a recent bit:

An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

 

Roman and Turin part 1

I should be looking out the window. I’m midway through a six hour train ride through Italy, and the scenery is lovely. But you people are so demanding!
 I’ve left Rome and am on my way north to a town called Pavia. I’m suffering from the usual complaints of the extremely budget-conscious traveler (back, sinuses, emotional stability), but a ham sandwich and a beer have put me in relatively high spirits. Sadly, every meal will now be compared to yesterday’s lunch.

 I left my beloved NYC late on Halloween night, escaping the madness in the city with the relative safety of a trans-continental flight. The plane deposited me in Milan, some 400 miles from my first gig. The way Italian clubs do business means I booked my flight before I knew where I was going. Milan is a fine city to fly into, but it did become rather a long day: flight, subway to the city centre, three hour train ride to Rome, then subway to my hotel. I checked in, squeezed myself into a shower the size of a small phone booth, took a 12 minute nap, then took the subway to the gig. A mercifully brief soundcheck, followed by a pizza which I had time just to roll up and insert, then we hit the stage. I think I managed to play most of the gig standing up. 


The club was, and is, Gregory’s- a wonderful intimate venue which one might describe as a real jazz club. I’ve played there a couple of times before, and it’s always a pleasure, due largely, I’m sure, to the boss, Omar, who is terrific fellow, and a genuine jazz fan. Its central location, near the famed Spanish Steps, means it’s easy to find, and is usually well populated. Ground level houses a bar bursting with fine Scotch whiskeys, and beer they serve in vase-size glasses. Winding back stairs take you up to the music room which is woody, low-ceilinged, and comfy. The stage is tiny, and the audience is within spitting distance of the band, a fact of which they were reminded throughout our gig. The people smiled and clapped, and generously tolerated my pathetic attempts at bilingual announcements. A few post-show cocktails followed, and I rolled out of there and into bed.


 Adam Pache is the man responsible for this trip. A mate of mine from back in Sydney, he’s been based in Italy for seven years, his formidable talents easily making him the go-to drummer for visiting musicians. He also knows how to put together a grand tour. Day two we met for coffee and then coffee. By that stage we were ready for a coffee, and suddenly it was lunch time. Pache knows his onions when it comes to food, and I trust his recommendations implicitly. This afternoon, he didn’t disappoint. A short stroll through town, interrupted only by a Campari and soda, took us to Trattoria Monti. Pasta seemed like the order of the day until closer inspection of the menu revealed brains. Fried, or stewed with porcini mushrooms. We ordered the brains. We ate the brains. And they were absolutely freaking delicious. Those zombies are really onto something.

I digested my thoughtful lunch with some obligatory sightseeing and a well-earned nap, before heading back to Gregory’s for a repeat performance. I was a little more alert this time, and I can report happily that bassist Jacopo Ferrazo and our man Pache swung their arses off. 

 Rome was a delight, and showed me that jazz musicians and brains needn’t be mutually exclusive. Righto, talk to you from Pavia. 

A Stroll Through the Belly of the Beast

Recently in lower Manhattan, an astonishing new attraction/eyesore was unveiled. A massive white marble mausoleum, it’s what officials quoted in newspapers like to call a “transport hub”, which makes slightly more sense, but has vastly less terrifying supernatural impact than, its official title: THE OCULUS. Built in the hole left by the twin towers, a respectful 15 years later, it connects my beloved/behated PATH train (which sometimes runs under the Hudson river to Jersey City), with the NYC subway. Check this thing out:

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Excellent photo by Champian Fulton

Apparently designed to resemble a just-released dove, it feels much more like wandering around inside a bleached whale, which is surely a boon to lovers of biblical re-enactments, and hopefully doesn’t attract the attention of too many psychotic Ahabs. At 5PM daily, a wave of humans gushes though its gaping doors, from which New Jerseyans are filtered, like loud pushy plankton, and swallowed up by the PATH station. They are then discharged from the back of the whale and deposited in New Jersey where New Yorkers don’t have to think about them.

I’m sure the Oculus is meant to represent freedom, or liberty, or justice, or one of the other American-owned abstract concepts that make my adopted homies well up with national pride. But predictably, it’s really there to showcase that one overarching western idea: consumerism. When I first wandered through the space, none of the shops was occupied, and I very naively imagined an array of friendly welcoming independent purveyors of goods and services aimed at the commuter. I envisioned a bakery, a bookshop, maybe a fishmonger, meatmonger, Flowermonger Dude!- places useful to a working person on their way to or from work. Instead the’ve installed Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, John Varvatos, and various other high-end boutiques with people names. And of course, they’re always empty. Who’s buying a thousand-dollar suit at a train station? But I suspect the shops aren’t there to be patronised. It might be worth Hugo losing that presumably astronomical rent to have his storefront seen in such a high-profile building. At least he’ll show up in the background of a million Instagram photos each day.

It also occurred to me that putting such recognisable brands in a new and slightly intimidating building might be to reassure the populace; to soothe our panic at the sight of something weird and foreign. It’s like when I cook my family something exotic for dinner, I always include something recognisable so they don’t run and hide in my skirts. Like my celebrated Croatian Goulash with Hot Dog, or Vietnamese Pho with Oreos. This strategy has proven successful in many areas, like when Beethoven put that da-da-da-dummm thing that we all know so well into his 5th Symphony; and instead of painting just anyone, da Vinci chose Mona Lisa because he knew we’d all recognise her. Those guys had Seamless Familiarity Integration sewn up before breakfast!

I’m hoping that if this Oculus is deemed a success, it will spawn a chain of Worldwide Oculi, each more terrifying and, erm, megapterine than the last. The Oculus Down Under: It’s Humpback for More! And so on. But until then, it’s another vulgar, overblown, outsized New York speciality, and I have no choice but to tiptoe timorously through its turgid intestines every day. It’s a colossally ostentatious waste of public money, and I think it’s way cool.

Get Off My Lawn, Punks

It’s been about 6 months since I posted something on this blog, and what a pleasure it’s been, eh? But I’ve finally succumbed to the barrage of insistent inquiries that could conceivably have been pouring in, and put feeble fingers to calcified keys. Just to tell you that I’ve got nothing to say.

When we put that Catch and Release business to bed at the end of last year, I decided to take a break from the relentless self-promotion that had taken over my life. I felt like I needed to stop talking about playing, writing and listening to music, and actually play, write, and listen to music. And it’s been grand. But I missed the little messages I used to stuff in a Coke bottle and fling into the internet. Stretching one line’s worth of idea into 500 words every couple of weeks gave me a real sense of achievement. But the longer I stayed away, the fewer ideas I seemed to get. And now when I look back at last year’s attempts, they read like they were written by someone else. Someone carefree, wide-eyed, and innocent. See, the real problem is that I turned 40.

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It’s not only suitable topics that are the problem, it’s finding a way to express these newfound feelings of resentful middle-aged bitterness that’s got me scratching my head. Continuing unfiltered, this blog could rapidly turn into the front-porch rocking chair rantings of a deranged old coot. And I guess this constant sharing of our lives that we’re all supposed to be enjoying is really starting to get up my nose (I recognise the irony of writing this in a personal blog), and much of the time I can’t be bothered making my mundane life sound more exciting than yours, which rather seems to be the point. I find myself longing for the simple pleasures of a nice cup of tea and an afternoon spent throwing rocks at children.

On the other hand, I’m feeling energised by a weird feeling of rebellion. I’m yet to find a distinct target, but it has something to do with all the money and hype and pomp involved in today’s jazz world, and how little of it has to do with playing jazz; and how apparently eager some players are to buy into the bullshit. I’m not sure how I’ll express this, but it’s something to think about. Fingers crossed it’ll get personal and catty!

Anyway, I’m 40, and it seems my daydreams are evenly split between bringing down the establishment and making plans for a nice rock garden. And this is all just a drawn out way of saying I’m pulling the shutters up, and the blog is open for occasional business. Anything you want to know about? Cheers, Nick

Barbies, Big Bands, and Bolting from Bar Tabs: Sydney, Week 2

Note: this all happened ages ago. N

When we left each other last, I was dealing with my 40th birthday with calm, philosophical, zen-like acceptance. And four jugs of Illusion and a tattoo. This dubious landmark fell, as have so many before it, on New Year’s Day; and as this was a big one, my younger brother, exhibiting his trademark generosity and questionable judgment, threw me a barbecue. The barbie is a big part of Australian culture, but I can’t see much to separate it from backyard get-togethers anywhere else.

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I don’t care much about cake, but this thing was freaking amazing. Ta, Rossana!

There’s lots of charred meat, usually a couple of forlorn, neglected salads, lots of beer, and talk about weather and sports. The only difference here was that the food was seriously top-shelf (cos my bro doesn’t fuck around once he’s strapped on the apron), and a lot of said food was kangaroo. If you’ve never eaten our national symbol, it’s lean and gamey and delicious. If you can find it, try it. As a rule, I dislike gatherings of more than one person, but this really was a lovely gang of people, and I grudgingly admit to enjoying myself. Although, after everyone left, I held a private birthday ceremony wherein I stripped naked, smeared myself with kangaroo fat and charcoal, climbed a tree and sang “It Was A Very Good Year” very quietly to myself, for several hours.

 

I used to play in big bands a lot when I lived in Sydney. I don’t get called for that kind of work much in New York, and I miss it. So I was well chuffed when my old boss Dan Barnett called me to sub in his band. Dan’s a great trombonist and vocalist, as well as a charismatic and entertaining bandleader, and his gigs are always top fun. Once a month for years he’s played at the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain- one of those classic inner-city pubs that Sydney used to be known for. Recently the gig has moved next door, to the much more comfortable Workers’ Bar- a top little venue in the former home of one of the city’s first workers’ unions. It’s a friendly joint, decorated with kitschy reminders of its Labor party heritage, and this afternoon was packed with smiley folk downing beers and piling onto the dance floor. This is really one of the most fun gigs in Sydney, and if you’re in town on a Sunday, I heartily recommend it. Here’s some of Dan’s band in action at the Unity:

and if you want to find out about the band’s new album (recorded just a few weeks ago), you can check it out here: http://www.danbarnett.com.au

I filled in a few quiet days reintroducing mIMG_2341yself to various family members, eating meat pies, drinking beer, and being a tourist. I even went to look at the harbour. I felt like a bit of a schmuck- like a New Yorker going to Times Square- but I had to remind myself of its loveliness. It was idiotic of me to attempt this during the summer holidays- from the bridge, ‘round Circular Quay, to the Opera House it was elbow-to-arsehole sunburned shouty English tourists. I gazed serenely out across the water, dreaming of flinging a few of the whining buggers in, but eventually had to seek refuge in
the cool and beery Orient Hotel.

 

And suddenly it was my last night in town, and I had a gig! Legendary Sydney drummer Andrew Dickeson is one of my oldest mates, musical cohorts, and teachers; and he’d very kindly lined up a show at a relatively new club called Foundry 616. Run by renowned jazz impresario Peter Rechniewski, it’s a well appointed, well designed jazz club in the classic supper club style. The band was Dicko and me, with bassist and old mate Brendan Clarke, and guitarist Dave Blenkhorn- a Sydney lad now plying his very swinging trade in Europe. The joint was packed to the rafters with family and friends, which was initially terrifying, but ultimately heart-warming and somewhat overwhelming. It was a terrific hang, we played as much bebop as we possibly could, and as a salute to my Sydney salad days, I ended the night by skipping out on my bar tab. Sorry about that, Peter.

Here’s a tune from that very gig!

I managed to fit in another 24 hours in Hong Kong on my way home, where I attempted to eat this:

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Righto, more soon! Cheers, Nick

Little Italy, Big Fish,and Skank in a Chinese Brothel: Sydney, Week 1

Note: the word “now” in the first sentence refers to a time about two weeks ago. Pretend I posted this then, and you’re just reading it now. I know, you’ve been busy…

I’m writing to you now (that was it) on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York. They’ve got a good selection of British telly onboard, and I’ve just watched two hours of Cockney sitcoms to aid in the  digestion of whatever it was I just ate, so I apologise if things go a bit how’s-your-father, if you know what I mean. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in my home town of Sydney. It’s been twelve years since I lived there, and three since I last visited. It’s an odd feeling to go back after all this time: it all feels equally foreign and familiar. Like that guy from Fantasy Island. Ricardo Montalban. Not Hervé Villechaize. He’s more Adelaide. Don’t worry- this won’t be on the test. Anyways, let’s start at the beginning.

The first thing that happens when you land in Sydney- if you’re me- is that your Australian accent comes back. Like, immediately. In my time in the US, I’ve developed a weird hybrid accent which, while saving me from having to repeat myself to cloth-eared locals, makes me the target of much scorn from visiting Aussies. But here I was, talking like a local again before I’d even collected my carry-sacks from the trundle-round. Next time you visit, try addressing your friendly immigration officer as an old c#nt- you’ll fit right in! I was staying at the home of my handsome and generous younger brother in the charming suburb of Leichhardt, named in memory of a fellow of the same name, who did something memorable. I spent many of my younger days in this area, and I was keen to revisit some of the old haunts.

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Leichhardt is Sydney’s Little Italy. It’s not overtly Italian, like New York’s cartoonish Mulberry Street, but instead it’s spread-out and residential, and lots of old people still speak Italian. If you hang out in the wrong places, you might run into the occasional “colourful racing identity”, but it’s more about old women dressed in black with sons who still live at home. I have to stop in at Bar Italia, which actually can get a bit fuhgeddaboudit, but I’ve been going there since I was a teenager, and it hasn’t changed. The food and coffee are decent, but go there for the Italian-Australian atmosphere.

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Christmas in Australia is hot. It’s just one of the things we obstinately insist on doing differently. We also sleep under our beds, comb our hair with forks, and wear socks over our flip-flops. There are a few old-timers who persist with the big traditional hot Christmas dinner, but most of us realise it’s more seasonally appropriate to spend the day shovelling the contents of the Pacific ocean into our gobs. And if you’re in Sydney, this means a visit to the Fish Markets. It’s been a while, so I’d forgotten that this is the greatest place on earth.

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It’s a big, wet, sprawling, chaotic affair, with dozens of burly vendors selling every animal that’s ever set fin in an ocean. They stay open ‘round the clock for a couple of days before Christmas to deal with demand, but it’s still insane at 3AM. I like to leave my bro to do the purchasing while I wander around inspecting the freshness of giant grouper by examining their teeth. I wish there was another way.

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There’s not much to do between Christmas and new year. Everything is closed except the pubs; and when you’ve been in town three days, and the bar staff know more about you than your family does, you’ve been spending too much time there. Anyway, this week is for Australians to lie on the couch, watch the cricket, and digest, like a snake that’s just eaten a whole goat. And then slid onto a couch to watch cricket.

Then New Years Eve rolled around as it so often does, and for the big night I was thrilled to be playing with some old chums in a Ska band called Backy Skank. I’m proud to say I was a founding member of this band 20-something years ago, and reuniting is always a gas.

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The venue was Lazybones lounge- a two story warehouse-style joint, run by a charming madman called Craig. We think Craig sleeps there. Backy Skank frontman Pete described the decor as “part Chinese brothel, part English gentlemen’s club; although I’ve never been to an English gentlemen’s club.” Dozens of vintage Chesterfield sofas for napping, bizarre nicknacks on every surface, pornographic paintings on the ceilings, and a general attitude of louche abandon- this is where you want to spend New Years Eve. We skanked it up for a few hours, playing hits from Madness, the Specials, a bit of Marley; while downstairs, I was chuffed to discover my mates Dan Barnett, Dave Blenkhorn and James Ryan playing jazz! Upstairs for beer and ska, then downstairs on the breaks for whiskey and jazz! A fabulous night. Then I turned fucking 40.

Next up, Sydney, week 2: fun, swinging Aussie jazz gigs, and the onset of resentful middle-aged bitterness!