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…

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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?

Bonkers in Honkers Part 2

When I left you, we were about to start playing at Hong Kong’s Lyric Theater- technically the reason for us being there. For an out-of-touch bebop musician like me, a relatively big pop show like this is unfamiliar territory. I’m used to playing with two or three cohorts, minimal amplification, minimal audience, almost nothing in the way of stage fog or strobe lights, and a fairly reliable absence of rampant slavering groupies; and in most ways the Bianca Wu show was very different.

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Most of this pop lark is an absolute gas. Now I may have a reputation as an elitist; an intellectual and artistic snob, but I can assure you that, as Tolstoy said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.Read more at http://www.notable-quotes.com/t/tolstoy_leo.html#k6TJxtMzHcru8zuC.99”… The music is great fun to play; the songs are all in Cantonese, meaning we can come up with dirty juvenile approximations of the lyrics; the singer is easy on the eyes, it’s great watching the swooping video cameras narrowly miss the absurd set designs, the enormous number of seemingly inept stage crew bumping into eachother provide constant amusement, and taking a bow in front of a cheering crowd never gets tired. But a few things take some getting used to. In order to hear in a room this size, we have to listen to ourselves, and each other, through headphones, otherwise the amplified sound bouncing back from the room sounds like a garbled mess. So each of us is outfitted with a pair of “cans” (headphones, not breasts), and a small mixing desk with a knob for each instrument. Pop music- it’s all cans and knobs these days. This means I can adjust the volume level of each other player in my headphones, usually based on how much I like his shirt, and how nice he was to me that day. Our drummer Dan has the added pleasure of being surrounded by a thick sheet of perspex, giving him the appearance of a caged animal, which is not doing much to help the reputation drummers have already.

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And our musical director, Art, has a microphone stuck in his face at all times that feeds directly to us, so he can verbally hold our hands and lead us though the show. Add to this the fact that we can rarely see or hear the audience, and it sometimes feels like an elaborate prank. Albeit a fairly well paid one. The Hong Kong crowds were also presumably disappointed by the dearth of saxophone solos, but they’re a stoic people. After the shows, Bianca would chat and take photos with hundreds of fans individually, and sell more of her CDs in a night than I have of mine under my couch. We’d sneak out the back door, grateful to security for doing such an amazing job of keeping fans away from the band, and then it was off into the night.

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On our last trip, after an evening spent dodging aggressive prostitutes and bloated, ruined expats in Wanchai, Dan, Art and I (allegedly) drunkenly stumbled into a bar with what I’m going on record as saying was an awesome cover band. ACDC, Bon Jovi, Van Halen- these guys played note-for-note recreations of ‘em all. And after sheepishly asking around, it seems it’s a bit of a Hong Kong thing: Filipino bands working their arses off playing the hits for drunken idiots. Now I’m a closet hair-band fan, but what really impressed me here was the talent and stamina. These guys tear it up hour after hour, night after night, segueing from one song to the next, while showing no outward signs of the gaping chasm of crushing disappointment that presumably inhabits their souls. I like it when they do Cherry Pie. Now I’ve played in my share of cover bands, but when we had to play three 45 min sets in a night, we’d stomp our feet and refuse to put the wigs and body glitter back on until we got a pay rise, a massage, and a week off. I’m impressed, I tell you. And somehow, magically, this trip we fell into the same bar, with the same band, playing the same songs. I saw it as fate’s way of telling me to rip my shirt off, douse myself in Chartreuse, and scream the wrong words to Livin’ On A Prayer. It seems Hong Kong bouncers have a more indeterminist outlook than me.

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This photo has no relation to the story.

As I mentioned in my last outpouring, this city is known for is its food, and I’d decided to shove as much in as possible. I’d had limited success with expert recommendations, so I tried listening to the internet. One highlight was a dumpling joint 20 mins walk from our hotel where Dan and I, both fairly large lads, were politely and graciously wedged behind the smallest table available, in a greasy nook under the stairs. Crammed in amongst the mops and Kitty Litter, we perused the menu. Occasionally I like to gamble and not read the English translations, ordering based on what I think the Chinese characters might mean. Got a lot of respect for my excellent taste too- as one dish was served the room went silent and the other customers started filming me. In fact several fainted in admiration. I also waited for an hour outside Kam’s Roast Goose to have an incredible Michelin-starred lunch for 10 bucks- more of that amazing fatty crispy awesomeness. I liked it so much I offered them a slogan: “Our goose puts the “Honk” in Hong Kong!” I’m not welcome at Kam’s anymore.

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We finished up the tour with an after-party. I think you know what I’m talking about. Rock and Roll! Am I right?! Try and imagine the most debauched, depraved, orgiastic rock band party ever. Then please describe it to me, ‘cause that’s as close as I’ll get. The spring rolls were delightful. I think they had some shredded seaweed in them. Next stop: Sydney!

 

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!

Uppity youngsters, a sentimental Journey, and a belt rings a Belltown

Back on the tour bus, with a whole new entourage. Glad I didn’t learn the names of the last one. So confusing- I don’t know how Willie Nelson does it! And these groupies really seem to have no idea what the job entails. Very poor.

 I’m headed down to Portland, Oregon from      the lovely Seattle, and I’m kind of sorry to be leaving. It’s one of my favourite towns to visit, and I look forward one day to seeing some of it… My sightseeing this time consisted of hauling my gear a mile or so through impenetrable fog from the bus station to the hotel. By pure luck, I’d chosen the charming Belltown neighbourhood in which to base myself- it’s a quirky spot with a nice mix of hipsterish bars and very picturesque homeless people. I fed and watered at the Belltown Pub, and got dolled up for the gig.

 Friday’s gig was at a joint callled Boxleys in North Bend, a half-hour drive from the city. A musician-run club, it’s heavily involved in jazz education, and is part of a developing cooperative with a few other clubs in the area, the idea being that eventually touring players will be able to do a circuit of the region, instead of playing just one club. We had a very enthusiastic crowd in attendance, including a lot of kiddies, which meant I had to tone down some of the intense, X-rated portions of my patter; and the goat got the night off. After the show, one of the kids came and asked if my album was available on iTunes, because he doesn’t own a CD player. I took my dentures out and threw them at him.

  
After I got back to the hotel, I thought a wander through the neighbourhood was in order. The first bar I went into looked strangely familiar. Bars two through seven rang a bell too. I eventually realised that I’d stumbled into the same neighbourhood my mate Dan and I had bar-crawled through two years earlier. I figured that made me a local and breezily told the bartender to “put ’em on my tab” as I sauntered out the door. At least, that’s how I remember it. It would also explain the bruises. 

  
Saturday night found us in a town called Renton, just south of the city. A pretty new club, Shuga is a sprawling pile with bar, restaurant and music room all separate from eachother. The owner had sent me panicky emails for weeks prior, concerned that we wouldn’t have an audience. I didn’t tell him that the time spent writing me these emails could have been spent promoting the show. He also hired a singer to sit in with us, to increase our allure. Normally if a club owner did this, I would tell him to sit on it, but I’m the out-of-towner here, so I took it. Turned out she was very nice and a good singer; and the crowd was fine, and all stayed to the end, so everyone was happy. On a break, I took a stroll through Renton’s deserted streets to get some cash. Suddenly I tripped, and found myself in a neighbourhood bar where I ran into every resident of Renton. Packed it was. And for karaoke. As I walked in, someone in the corner was dismembering Frank Sinatra, while the crowd ignored him enthusiastically. Then the next tune started and my ears pricked up to the opening strain of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. With a cheer, 100 or so Rentonites raised their Budweisers and started singing along. I joined in, and for a minute, the good people of Renton and I were one. I went back and finished out the gig, playing my part as a sophisticated, jet setting jazz musician. But deep down, I knew I was just a small town girl, living in a lonely world. 

Next up: homemade clothes, craft beer, strip clubs, and the mustiest hotel room this side of the Mustiville! Cheers, Nick