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.

 

 

Bonkers in Honkers Part 1

The following was written in Hong Kong, but posted in Sydney. I’m really not very good at this. Enjoy!

If you’ve been enduring my incessant social mediafying, you’ll know we’re about half way through our Hong Kong escapade, and I thought a rundown was in order. I’m here with a gang of killer musicians from New York to play with Hong Kong pop star Bianca Wu. We’ve all worked with her many times over the past six-or-so years, and this is our third visit to the area. Bianca’s a pretty big deal in these parts, and we’re here doing three shows at the 1200-seat Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong’s Academy for the Performing Arts. The shows are big- 26 songs over two and a half hours; it’s a real workout for the rhythm section, and an absolute doddle for me. The horn section is only on stage for about two thirds of the show, and much of that is spent adjusting our music stands and losing count of bars of rest. The rest of the time I’m offstage, wandering the labyrinthine hallways shouting “ROCK ’N’ ROLL!!” in a bad cockney accent. Never gets tired. There’s altogether too much rehearsing and sound checking, but we’ve had a bit of time to get into some trouble.

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To start at the start, we were met at the airport by our producer Patrick, and bundled into cabs to the city. It’s a fair hike- the airport is located on the always-satisfyingly named island of Chek Lap Kok (yep, still there), and the trip takes you through several islands, Kowloon, and under Victoria Harbour- none of which is visible from the endless freeway. We were all pretty dazed after the marathon flight, but steeled ourselves for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. My spirits lifted noticeably with the discovery that the joint’s specialty was roast meat. Suddenly, it became clear that the only things missing from my life were dead animals and weak Chinese beer. I mentioned this to our host and was presented with a whole fatty, crispy, juicy, life-affirming roasted goose, which I ate. I would have ordered another one, but fellow diners were starting to look at me with genuine concern. I wiped enough goose fat out of my eye to wink reassuringly at them, then lay down under the table. Eventually I slid back to the hotel where I took a handful of Melatonin and slept like a greasy baby.

Goose collage

 

 

Next morning, I jolted my addled brain into action with a visit to one of the excellent coffee shops which are multiplying throughout the city. Traditionally, China has been associated with coffee in the way the US has been associated with thin healthy people, but this is changing fast, and I had numerous quality caffeinated options in walking distance from our digs. Alert and teeth-grindingly jittery, I joined the band for a hair-raising van ride through the city to our first rehearsal. For an hour we were thrown about like sneakers in the clothes dryer, while our lunatic driver veered across lanes and ploughed through vegetable carts and stacks of empty boxes; all the while juggling a dozen cell phones emitting incessant, piercing alerts and ringtones. When we arrived at rehearsal, it was all I could manage to crawl to a couch, close my eyes, and do nothing for two hours. Fortunately, that’s what I’m being paid to do.

HK Rehearsal collage

The Afterthought Horns and the rhythm section. Both doing what they do best.

Honkers is a glutton’s paradise, with noodles, dumplings and delicious animal parts of every imaginable species within arm’s reach. I had a bit of time on Thursday, so I went searching for a couple of joints that had come recommended. I wandered down to the stunning Victoria Harbour, surely one of the loveliest city harbours in the world, and hopped on the ferry to Kowloon. It’s madness over there- an engorged, throbbing, quivering mess of humanity. Tourists, locals, hawkers, beggars, millionaires, all conspiring to stop me getting anywhere. I had some pretty amazing dumplings at the famed Din Tai Fung, then fought my way back through the throng. By the time I got back to the harbour, I’d somehow managed to buy a dozen watches, four suits, and a Filipino wife. Don’t know how I’m going to fit them all in my bag.

HK Harbour collage

Ferry and junk

Then it was another ferry over to the part of town creatively titled Central, where I was aiming for a little noodle place endorsed by Anthony Bourdain. I slogged up and down tiny alleys till I found the spot Google had assured me was the one. Three mouthfuls of impenetrable, leathery noodles were all I could get down before I pushed my plate away in defeat, grudgingly paid the bill and plodded home, cursing Bourdain, that lanky, septic bugger. It was then I discovered that I’d been at Mak An Kee, ONE BLOCK from my noodley holy grail, Mak UN Kee. I’ve just checked my Cantonese-English dictionary, and it seems “Un” means yummy, and “An” means rubbery tasteless shit reserved for idiot westerners.

That night we had our first crack at the stage of the Lyric, about which I will tell you… next time. Cheers!

A Curse Unleashed; Working for Doughnuts; and a Dahlia by Any Other Name

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I’m back, safe and sound with the muggers and drug dealers in NYC. My people. The last leg of our little NW adventure took place in charming Portland. It’s rare on a tour like this to spend a few days in one town, but that’s how it worked out, and I was well pleased. I reintroduced myself to the town in usual Hempton fashion; by schlepping my gear for miles. But there are few more schlep-friendly towns around- well maintained sidewalks, no hills to speak of, and an almost complete absence of people. It’s a quiet joint. The walk took me across the delightful Willamette river to the colourful East Side.

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If you want to relive the cross-country car trips you took as a kid with your family in the 70s, I recommend booking a night at the Eastside Inn. I had three. It’s got all the hallmarks of a classic old-timey motel: dusty, airless lobby attended by moth-eaten owner; three floors of squat rooms with wraparound balconies designed in the maximum-security-prison style; a strip club across the street (Union Jacks…); mysterious banging noises; and an unsurpassed level of throat-clutching mustiness. Seriously, when I opened that door I was hit by an acrid wave; it was like discovering the chamber where an Egyptian Pharaoh kept his grandmother’s bedsheets. A bit like this:

I kept the doors and windows open day and night, but this stuff lived there. After three days in that room, my suit became the season’s have-must item!

On the Sunday night, we headed south to the town of Aurora, and the Aurora Colony Vineyard. Oregon is known for its wineries, and one of these days, a vineyard jazz tour is in order. I was joined by some top-notch Portland players, and we played in the vineyard’s tasting room to a select (read small) group of discerning patrons. A little gig like this, while not financially particularly rewarding, is still a great pleasure for its intimacy. The audience felt involved in the performance, and I felt involved in the wine tasting. Very involved, actually. They squeeze a mean Sauv Blanc, and our generous hosts laid on some top-flight grub (pear and blue-cheese pizza anyone?). Audience and band chatted after the show, and when we rolled out of there, we were all firm friends.

I had the next day off, and spent it on one of the classic Portland tourist activities: standing in line all freaking day at the bank. I had some Canadian cash to deposit, and when I finally reached my 12-year-old teller, he was not only unfamiliar with Canadian currency, I suspect he’d never heard of the country. We sorted it out, and after converting it at the current rate, I took my Vancouver gig money and bought a doughnut.

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Voodoo Doughnuts: The Magic is in the Hole.

I tramped around town for the rest of the day, sampled from the countless food carts, got lost in the world’s biggest bookshop (if you lose your friend in a bookshop, can you have them paged?), and had dinner at a few of the city’s 65-odd breweries with a record company executive (it was actually my friend Nick from the Posi-Tone label…). Beer is a big thing in this town- they’ve got more breweries than any other city in the world- and you’ll often find yourself sitting in the shadow of the vat containing the beer you’re currently drinking. They go for the big hoppy varieties, subtle as a smack in the ear with a housebrick, and often a bit sweet for mine, but I’ll keep trying.

Tuesday we played at what was then called the Dahlia Theater in the lovely town of Canby, Oregon. Since I was originally booked for this show, the venue has been called Canby Wedding Chapel, Angelina’s Artiste Centre, and the Dahlia Theater. Who know’s what it’s called now. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to promote a show that changes its name every week. It’s actually a real Methodist chapel, built in 1884, with lovely ornate pressed tin walls. It’s a beautiful old pile, with naturally warm acoustics, and is now, thanks to owners Marilyn and Martin, exclusively used for concert presentations. Check this joint out!

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Next morning, it was toodle-pip to the girls at Union Jacks, and a cab (driven by a local bass player- I talked all the way) to the airport. It was a great fun trip, and I’m looking forward to getting back there soon. Next week: bonkers in Honkers!