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.

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.