Fish Heads, Goose Butts, and Making Women Cry: Hempton Back in Honkers

One of my favourite moments as a slightly-taller-than-average human is walking down a supermarket aisle and seeing a little old lady reaching for a high shelf. I pull myself up to my full height, slap a reassuring smile on my dial, and make my way nonchalantly towards her. I know what’s coming. “Dear will you reach that tin of jellied tongue for me?” she’ll ask. “Certainly, madam”, I’ll reply, “no trouble at all”. I’ll effortlessly retrieve her revolting selection and hand it to her, perhaps with a small bow. “My, aren’t you tall?”, she’ll say, admiringly. “Why, yes I am. Good day, madam.” I’ll smile benevolently and stride off, as she says to herself, “and so polite!”. I’m a good samaritan. A saviour. In many ways a hero. I’ve recently discovered this same experience can be replicated by hopping a flight to China. While the country has produced some extremely tall folks (that one guy whose name I can’t remember was a whopper wasn’t he!), I think we can agree that by and large, the Chinese are a relatively compact people. And those overhead bins are a long way up. I just stand there tall-ly, and wait for a tug on the sleeve, and play the part of magnanimous tall-guy. My pompous manner comes at no extra charge. 

For my two nights in Honkers, I’d picked a strategically located hotel called the Mini. Size
seems to matter today… A 10 minute walk from the gig, it was also, Google assured me, a mere 15 minutes walk from the Airport Express train. Google failed to mention that the walk was vertical. Horn on shoulder, pouring with sweat, and muttering obscenities, I dragged my enormous suitcase, packed with a ludicrously optimistic number of CDs, up the sheer face of Ice House street, passing a surprising number of attractive young women, who managed to look at me pityingly while clearly stifling laughter. Aching, drenched, and humiliated, I reached the summit and checked into room 813 of the Mini Hotel. 

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This was taken at the front door

I can only assume “Hilariously Microscopic” wouldn’t fit on the business cards. This room was not built for swinging cats. I put my card in the front door and knocked the soap out the window. If I wanted to consider multiple points of view simultaneously I had to put my bag in the hall. The cockroaches had hunch backs. It was small I tell you! It was late when I arrived, so I put aside thoughts of a relaxing post-flight crouch, and headed out to find food. I soon recognised my surroundings from previous visits- the late night, expat part of town- a mess of aggressively loud beer bars full of drunk shouty Aussies and Brits pawing at tired prostitutes and puking on each other. Plenty of restaurants open, but of the sad, neon-lit variety, mostly Indian and Thai, with pushy spruikers out front grabbing desperately at passers-by. Things were looking grim, when just outside the danger zone, I glanced down a narrow alley and saw one of my favourite sights: groups of locals sitting on low stools slurping stuff out of bowls. I was down there like a shot, sharing a table with a toothless, grinning old bloke who seemed to know everyone. I couldn’t decide between the fish head and the pork intestines, so at about 3 bucks each, went with both. And a big bottle of the local water-beer. It had been a long flight. The waiter motioned at his head and stomach to be sure I knew what I was ordering, and we were away. Old mate and I cheers’d each other as the food arrived and I scarfed the lot, to the apparent amusement of the staff closing up around me. Another beer and i was feeling floaty and fine. It’s the only way I know of dealing with the soul-shock of reentry- immediate immersion. Local food, drink, people, as quickly as possible. 

 Jet lag jolted me awake early next day, and it being my only free day (till the night’s gig), I went wandering. I had no grand plans, aside from losing myself in the city and eating good things. I started with a joint I’d meant to try on previous trips- Mak’s Noodle. I sat at a tiny table across from a young couple, playing a game of inadvertent kneesies with the poor fellow, and had a bowl of noodle soup with brisket and wontons which would have been delicious if I wasn’t expecting it to be transcendental. One day I’ll learn.IMG_9032 I then sloshed down to the lovely Victoria harbour to take a ride on the Star Ferry. I do this every time- I don’t know why, nobody I take on it seems overly impressed, but I think it’s brilliant. It costs 35 cents for a ten minute ride on a grand old tub from the fifties, across unusually green water from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. All manner of craft drift by, from ostentatious millionaire yachts to ancient barely-afloat fishing junks, the glittering modern skyscrapers crowding around the shorelines, and the towering Tao Mo Shan mountain in the background. It’s very cool. Kowloon itself is the shopping mecca- Prada and Gucci and what-have-you- and doesn’t do much for me. The idea of traveling somewhere to go shopping baffles me; so I had a stroll, drank some kind of tapioca tea concoction and ferried back.

 I’ve drooled before on this blog about the offerings at Kam’s Roast Goose- the cheap, IMG_9036Michelin-starred meat paradise in WanChai. Last trip I tried to take the folks there for dinner, but they were sold out, so this time I got in early. I waited about 45 minutes for seat, checking my place on the list only occasionally with the truly intimidating woman who runs the place (deep down I arrogantly assume she likes me, but I’m definitely wrong). As usual I was seated with others, this time a party of charming older ladies clearly celebrating, but demurely. I ordered a quarter of a goose, from the animal’s lower half- fattier and more expensive than the upper quadrants- and inhaled the whole dripping meaty mess. I was simultaneously proud of, and appalled at, myself. Ideally this would have been the time for a nap. But I had a gig to get to.

 Wiping the goose juice from my chin, I hustled back to my matchbox and suited up. The night’s venue was Peel Fresco- ostensibly a jazz club, and the only one in town, but really anything goes, the jazz posters on the walls thoroughly outnumbered by those of posturing rock gods. There’s no piano, so it’s electric keyboard all the way, and the house drum kit is a clapped out old rock setup desperately pleading for retirement. As a bar it’s great, with lovely people on staff, but a town of this size, with this much money deserves more than half a jazz venue. The gig was hooked up by my old mate Blaine- a killer alto player a year or two ahead of me on the Sydney scene in the old days; the band was all Aussie aside from our New York-born pianist, and we had a ball ripping through some classics. The crowd was friendly and engaged aside from one old bag who was loudly and drunkenly abusing a poor young lass at the next table. Eventually I entered bar-manager mode and charged over to give her an earful, in the process knocking a drink into the lap of the poor innocent woman who’d been receiving all the abuse, who then ran out in tears. I really must learn not to get involved.

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I had a nice late hang with the cats, my delirious jet lagged brain unable to grasp concepts like time, and impending flights, eventually stumbling back to the Mini for a refreshing four hour nap, then back to the airport. Next up, breathless in Beijing! 

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Buffalo, Bia, and a Smelly Punch in the Face: Hanoi pt 1

At some point during my short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi (ok it was immediately after take-off), I decided a cooling beverage was in order, so I cleared my throat pointedly in the direction of a passing attendant and inquired about the possibility of procuring a cold beer. Seconds later I was presented with a can of warm lager and a cup of ice. “Pardon me”, I ventured politely, “but what the fuck is this?” Fortunately by this time she was well down the plane, attending to another poor sucker- possibly providing him with a bag of wine and a spoon- and missed my impertinence. I closed my eyes, downed my beer on the rocks, and accepted that things were different here.

In his fine book, Down Under, Bill Bryson reflects that after flying as far as Australia from the US, he expects to find at least people on camels and swarthy men puffing on hookahs, when in fact he lands to find Sydney comfortable, clean and familiar. Arriving in Vietnam is quite the opposite, and one of the reasons I love visiting SE Asia: it’s really different. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I was passing fields being ploughed by water buffalo, shirtless rickshaw drivers leering toothlessly around their cigarettes, old men riding even older scooters while balancing impossible piles of building materials on their shoulders; all accompanied by my cab driver’s taste in Vietnamese trance. This joint is nothing like home.

It was only the most cursory glance at some travel websites that made me settle on Hanoi, and even less research to choose my neighbourhood, but boy did I do good. Half an hour from the airport, things started to get crowded and noisy; streets narrowing to a single lane, the noise of gunning motorbikes and shouting shopkeepers penetrating the disco daze. We slowed to a crawl as we got deeper into the Old Quarter, the streets thick with scooters and stall owners wheeling trolleys. And right in the middle of this was the Oriental Suites hotel. Brilliant.

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I saw this, but I borrowed this excellent photo from https://restlessabandon.com

Once checked in, I showered and set off for a look around. Pushing the hotel doors open and passing from my hushed air-conditioned haven back out into the outrageous cacophony of the old quarter took some real adjustment. In fact this happened every time I left the hotel- the sudden onslaught of intense humanity was like a punch in the face. The noise, the colours, the smells (fish sauce, gasoline, dog shit), the stifling humidity– it’s quite intimidating. But the only way to do it is confidently, otherwise you’ll be crushed. Probably by a Honda.

I’d been told about a northern Viet tradition called Bia Hoi (the discovery that the word for beer is “bia” immediately doubled my vocabulary), and that I needed to check it out. On street corners throughout the Old Quarter, low plastic stools are set out on the street, and (almost exclusively) men sit around and get plastered on cheap local beer. This stuff is brewed in the morning, delivered in the afternoon, and whatever’s left at closing time is dumped. In the corner of every Bia Hoi joint, an old bloke sits with his thumb over the end of a length of garden hose attached to a keg, and fills glasses all night. As soon as you park yourself, a beer magically appears in front of you, and they keep coming until you say stop, or fall over.

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Old bloke in training. Via http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com

I realised that the spot I’d picked was really just a drinking room: the keg was in the bar across the street. And one young fellow’s job all night was to carry armfuls of beer from one place to the other, weaving and dodging his way through an endless phalanx of kamikaze motorcyclists. It was better than TV. And the price? 40 cents a beer. It’s not the best beer I’ve ever drunk, but it was cold, the weather was stinking hot, and at that moment it was ambrosia. They also serve food at these joints- snacks to help with the drinking, really- but often very good. I gave my usual performance of gesturing helplessly at plates on neighbouring tables, and ended up with some kind of fish cakes which were salty and spicy and bloody delicious. Bia Hoi is a great way to start your evening: a little appetiser and a dozen beers, and you’re all set for a good night.

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Fish cakes, bia, and the ubiquitous fish sauce/lime/chilli combo

 

In Part 2: Ghost turtles and the murder of Glenn Miller

Marinated Intestines and an Offering to the Gods of Smooth Jazz: Hong Kong

I was supposed to write this weeks ago. I was just back from an amazing time in Asia- 10 days of pop stardom in Hong Kong, followed by three days of gallivanting anonymously around Hanoi- and I thought you needed to read some more of my garbled disorganised travel stories. And then Bourdain went and died, and that really put me on the back foot. I’m not going to gush about him- people have been doing that ever since, and way better than I could. But I will say that the big guy was an important presence in my life- his attitudes to food and travel, the way he experienced other cultures, definitely informed my own approach. And he was never on my mind more than when traveling in Asia. So after two weeks of him peeking over my shoulder, silently judging my restaurant choices, the news of his death was a nasty jolt. I guess it would have been anyway. Fortunately his ideas are not going anywhere, and I’ll continue to heed his words when hitting the road. But enough of that- let’s get bonkers in Honkers.

The nice thing about this trip was that, after a half dozen visits to Hong Kong, I’ve seen a lot already. I didn’t feel that panic to get out and do, see, and eat, everything. I know where to go to get my roast goose fix; I’ve eaten my own weight in dumplings and noodles at the places the foodie websites told me about; I kinda feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the joint. And this time I had the parental unit in town for a few days, so I got to play the expert.

This was my fourth tour of duty with the Bianca Wu band (or the New York Jazz Cats as we’re officially titled- please don’t tell anyone). Bianca is a renowned pop singer in Hong Kong, and likes nothing better than to come to New York, record an album, then fly the whole 9-piece band down for a gig or two. Musically, it’s pretty far from what I usually do, and I can’t say I listen to much Cantonese pop in my downtime, but the band is ace, Bianca and her crew are lovely, and it’s fun to be a part of a big pop show playing to thousands of people.

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This was the biggest show to date, with dancers, light shows, giant video screens, a moving stage– lots of intricate parts to be connected, requiring an enormous amount of precision work done by a large group of very talented people. Fortunately none of this involved me. For real, sometimes it’s sweet being the sax guy. Honk my way through the half of the show with horn parts, rip out an occasional 8-bar smooth jazz solo, then take a seat and watch the dancers. My mates Art and Dan (piano and drums) carry most of the show while I sit back and try to look cool for the cameras. Life just ain’t fair.

IMG_7889Before the first show, the entire outfit converged on the parking lot for a good luck ceremony. This involved our star Bianca and various associated bigwigs performing a complicated series of manoeuvres around some large smouldering incense sticks and sheets of burning paper. Nobody seemed able, or inclined, to explain to me what was going on, but I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway, being occupied as I was in staring lasciviously at the ceremonial centrepiece: a glistening whole suckling pig. I dutifully did my bit- held some burning sticks, said some words I didn’t understand, all the while elbowing my way artfully through a group of people all considerably smaller than me, to be first in line for the blessed pork. A master carver hacked his way deftly through the porcine offering and handed me my dripping pile of ears, skin, and tongue. I scurried over to a corner and scoffed the lot, calm in the knowledge that least I didn’t have to worry about playing well: the fate of my performance was no longer in my own greasy hands, but in those of some Chinese deity. That night’s insipid smooth-jazz licks were positively divine.

At midnight one night after a particularly long, late rehearsal (Mum: haven’t you got it right yet??), Dan and I got back to the hotel starving. The helpful hotel staff suggested that the only things open would be around the train station. I’m not sure about you, but experience tells me food gets worse the closer it gets to public transport. But with little choice, we set off. And sure enough, once we crossed the tracks, we entered a magical make-believe world of kickass 24-hour restaurants. We walked along a winding, bustling street with noodle joints, dumpling spots, roast meat emporia, each more tempting that the last, and all open and overflowing with happy, partying locals. Of course we decided food could wait and headed for a bar.

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The Hong Kongers don’t really go in for bars the way I know them. They like to drink beer in restaurants, or cocktails in uber-fancy dens hidden inside office buildings. So when you find a good old fashioned dive, you make the most of it. This joint was packed with smiley locals, getting hammered and playing indecipherable bar games. Shortly after we took our seats at the bar, an unconscious patron was dragged past us. My kind of place. We chatted with some friendly folk and downed a few aperitifs, before stumbling back out to find the restaurant on which we’d settled. A big bowl of steaming spicy broth, with some noodles, meat, and veggies, slurped down in an over-lit, crowded, humid, family-run joint, with nothing but open doors and giant fans to combat the intense heat, may be one of my favourite experiences ever; and throughout Asia you can replicate it over and over. This place had marinated pig intestines in at least half their menu items, so I figured that was the way to go. Bloody good it was too.

After Cantopopping our way through the last show, most of the band headed back to NY, but Dan and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. I really needed to unwind after the several notes I’d played that week. We stayed in a part of town which I believe is called Dried Seafood Street, or if it’s not, should be. I spent the days gaping at displays of desiccated denizens of the deep, and nights drowning in noodles and beer. It was a brilliant way to tie off another visit to one of my favourite towns, before hopping it over to Vietnam. About which I’ll tell you next time. Righto.

Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!

Farm animals, a sex romp, and some un-Australian behaviour: Brisbane & Melbourne

I used to be Australian. Like, I was pretty good at it. I played cricket, I ate vegemite every morning, I made fun of Americans- I was an Aussie bloke. And above all, I knew how to act in a pub. I was more comfortable in a pub than in my own home. And the fact that my home is surprisingly uncomfortable doesn’t reduce the importance of that. But things have changed. Now I go into an Aussie pub and just stand there, mouth agape, like a child who’s accidentally wandered into a sex shop. The beers are all different, and suddenly American-style is a selling point. And they come in confusing sizes called pots and pints and schooners. And a schooner in one state is called a pot in another. And a pint can be fairly large or freaking enormous, depending on which end of the bar you order it from. And none of them is the size of beer I want. So you know what? Sometimes I put on an American accent. Because it’s less embarrassing to be an American than to be an Australian who doesn’t know how to order a beer.

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I tried this ploy in Brisbane, but my performance was interrupted by the explosive guffaws of Penny, one of my oldest friends, who I’d forgotten was standing right next to me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with that, and fair enough, I guess. I slunk away and let her do the ordering.

Beers in, we did a short sight-seeing drive through the streets of this famously sunny and friendly town, Penny helpfully pointing out various important landmarks, none of which penetrated the exhausted, befuddled, jet lagged fog that has inhabited my brain for the last few weeks. She dropped me at my hotel, where I checked in to the biggest room I’ve ever seen. The front-desk staff were extraordinarily friendly, and had cheerfully given me an upgrade without my asking. Maybe that’s just how people in Brisbane are, and I’ve been a cynical New Yorker for too long, but I found that deeply suspicious. If I find out I was drugged and made to perform in some kind of low-rent hotel room sex romp, I won’t be surprised. Neither should you when the video surfaces online. I mean if. Remember: drugged.

The gig was at a club that’s part of the Jazz Music Institute, and is essentially a bar with classrooms attached to it. The green room had a whiteboard in it. The institute had provided me with a couple of senior students for the gig, and even though I admit to being mildly concerned at their wide eyes and relentless bloody optimism, my fears were allayed by the end of the first tune. They dealt with whatever I threw at them, and put on a fine show. We topped the night off at a jam session at the other jazz club in town, which is brand new and feels a bit like an airport food court, but was populated with talented young musicians and drunk patrons, and what more can you ask for in a night out.

Early next morning it was off to Melbourne. Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has a long-standing, and largely imaginary, rivalry with my home town, Sydney. Melbourne is known for its healthy arts scene, and they’ve always had an active and widely-supported jazz community. That’s all well and good, but my cousin is a top notch chef, and runs one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, and between you and me, that’s why I was there. A gang of family took over a corner of the restaurant and wolfed down a succession of minutely planned, expertly executed, perfectly plated delights, while being charmed by the knowledgeable and professional, yet friendly staff. There was a guy who just did cheese. CHEESE! I had the pigeon followed by the pig- a bucolic scenario if ever I’ve eaten one. The restaurant is called Cutler & Co., in Fitzroy. Eat there!!

Sunday night, and the ostensible reason for my visit- a gig at the relatively new JazzLab. Opened by the owner of famed Melbourne jazz club, Bennett’s Lane, it’s a very handsomely appointed club with a great feel. Andrew Dickeson flew down from Sydney to play drums with me, along with ace trumpeter Mat Jodrell (whom I know from his frequent NY visits), and new friend Ben Robertson on bass. A very healthy crowd, dotted with some very welcome faces from my distant past, and various wonderful, and dutifully enthusiastic, family members, made for a smooth first landing in Melbourne. Next morning, off to Bangkok, where shit is probably going to be…different…

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Rainforests, raw octopus, and vampirism: New Zealand

It’s important to stay grounded. Humble. You can’t let the high-flying jet-setting lifestyle change you. If you’re ever in Auckland and need the wind taken out of your sails, I recommend the Albion Hotel. It was reasonably priced, and as I had my first night in New Zealand to myself, well located for some food and a look around. It was also minuscule, dusty, grimy and poky. A flop house like this will definitely stop you getting too big for your boots. However you’ll still be too big for your bed and shower. Redemption was downstairs in the form of a pub with an open fire and cricket on the telly, so it wasn’t all bad.

Google informed me that most of the nearby dining options were housed in the city’s gargantuan casino, which I rejected on principle. Following the advice of bartenders on every block, I eventually discovered a tiny Japanese noodle joint jam-packed with 5 Japanese people. I had a bowl of raw octopus in wasabi, which was chewy, sinus-scorchingly hot, and absolutely delicious; followed by a killer ramen. All that and a few beers and even the weird creaking noises and suspicious smells of the Albion couldn’t keep me awake

Next morning my mate Roger picked me up and took me to his lair, buried at the end of an impenetrable maze of corridors, deep below Auckland University. Rog is an old mate from my Sydney days, a brilliant saxophonist, and now runs the jazz program at the uni. And appears to be doing a bang up job. The kids I met in the halls and in the few hours teaching I did were unfailingly enthusiastic and eager, with a genuine musical curiosity. I killed several of them and am saving their blood to ingest when I need a little pick-me-up.

That night we had a cracking gig to a packed house at the Thirsty Dog- a fine beery pub- our show serving as the opener of the Auckland jazz festival. The local cats did a swinging job, and Rog got up on the last couple of tunes to kick my arse and take the show home. Then it was back to the idyllic rainforest retreat in which Rog and his family live, and where, I assume, they spend their time hunting with spears and building generators out of rocks and fish guts. Standing on their rickety balcony, overlooking the mangroves, I felt, literally and figuratively, about as far as I’d ever been from New York.

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Next morning I took a short flight to Wellington, where I was met by my hosts Mark and Veronica, and driven through lovely small-town streets and picturesque waterfronts. Mark’s a terrific drummer and I know the two of them from their extended stays in New York. After a nap at their also spectacularly vista’d home, we headed to the gig. While the show had attracted few bookings, the venue provided me with plenty of reservations. I think we could charitably call it a “loft”- an emptied out office space in a dilapidated concrete block with no toilets or running water. A map helpfully tacked to the bar directed the needy customer to the bathrooms in the gym down the block. The bar was tended by Mark and Veronica, and consisted of a fridge, several 6-packs, and a few bottles of wine; and an ingenious, MacGuyver-esque glass-washing system comprising two buckets and a hose. The crowd was indeed light, but warm and engaged; Mark and bassist Mike threw themselves headlong into the performance, and I think we gave them a great show. The Wellington Jazz Co-op is Mark and Veronica’s baby, and while the location may not be glamorous, they’re really putting in the hard yards to bring jazz to the people of Wellington, without the commercial constraints a conventional club can put on the artists. I hope it goes from strength to strength. Gig done, we all trooped around the corner to a big cheerful pub with live music and friendly folk and inhaled an appropriately greasy post-show snack.

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And a number of drinks, which I regretted as I waited for my 4:15AM Uber to the airport. It was a ridiculously short time to see a country, but I did get a feel for the joint, and next time I’ll try to add a few more stops to the visit. I had a lovely time, and I’m proud to say I was mature and refrained from imitating the accent, except while swearing at the Albion’s ludicrously low shower head which was seriously giving me the shuts. Next up: Brisbane…

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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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!