[Sponsored] Hong Kong’s got a new annual music festival – and all that jazz. The inaugural Freespace Jazz Fest lands at West Kowloon Cultural District on November 9-10, with a diverse and predominantly free lineup of international stars, acclaimed local artists, jazz-infused performances, screenings, jam sessions, talks and workshops unfolding throughout the weekend.
Festival headliners include Grammy Award-winning pianist Robert Glasper with his band Robert Glasper Trio, trip hop-imbued Mancunian trio GoGo Penguin, genre-smashing Brooklyn firebrands House of Waters, and contemporary Israeli flamenco guitarist Noa Drezner with her Flamenco Quartet.
Festival curator Kung Chi-shing, artistic associate of music at West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA), says he hopes the new festival can become a cultural counterpoint to big-ticket music events in Hong Kong.
“Freespace Jazz Fest is about education, cultivation, and creating a platform where musicians can exchange ideas – I want to see things go deeper and broader,” he says. As an established composer, performer and music activist, Kung is widely known in Hong Kong for his work with experimental music group The Box and the Street Music Series of free outdoor concerts.
“I think my concept of the Jazz Fest for West Kowloon is very different from what the [established] Hong Kong International Jazz Festival and LCSD jazz concerts are doing,” he continues. “They are primarily just presenting acts. But when musicians come and play a concert and then disappear, the impact is limited to the concert itself. I want to do something more, to connect the musicians with the audience and with each other.”
Asian Collective is a new experimental jazz quintet that exemplifies Kung’s vision for boundary-pushing presentation. The ensemble, which performs a free show on the indoor stage at The Box on November 9, features five eminent musicians – two local, one Taiwanese and two Japanese. The five musicians, who have never worked together before, will meet for the first time to connect and create improvisational jazz on the day before their pioneering performance.
“It’s like a jazz blind date,” laughs Kung. “Of course, there are risks. But that’s the thing about jazz: musicians all use a common language, which is improvisation. Many exciting possibilities open up when jazz musicians come together to improvise.”
Many of the young local artists appearing at the Freespace Jazz Fest have worked with Kung and West Kowloon before at Freespace Fest, which ran at West Kowloon Cultural District from 2012-2014, and at the subsequent Freespace Happening series. “We’re keeping the spirit of those events alive,” says Kung. “One reason I wanted to do a jazz festival is to create a larger platform for this group of young jazz musicians. I want this festival to be their home, an event they can keep coming back to every November to do something bigger and better.”
Most of the indoor performances at The Box stage, as well as all outdoor shows at the Great Lawn and Lau Bak Livehouse stages, are free. “I want to attract a diverse audience from different walks of life,” explains Kung. “Sure, we want the established jazz audience to have a new experience; something with an energy that is different from government music venues or jazz clubs. But I also think some people will come just because of the location. It’s so wonderful in November by the harbour, on the grass at the Art Park, watching the sunset. People can bring a picnic, bring their kids and bring their dogs, then end up listening to some great jazz. They may become a future jazz audience!”
Aside from the music, Kung is overseeing a programme of talks, workshops, meet-the-artist sessions, jam sessions and satellite events for the two-day Fest. Attendees can observe a music poetry jam, shop at the craft market, view a screening of Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, participate in sharing sessions by local and international musicians, join in the ticketed, kid-friendly jazz lessons, or catch a roaming, festival-wide performance of The Great Gatsby by Hong Kong Ballet.
One particularly pertinent session at The Room inside Freespace is “Women in Jazz” – a 90-minute panel discussion of female presence in jazz, moderated by gender studies scholar and visual artist Dr Sonia Wong. The talk came about after Kung realised he had struggled to strike a gender balance while putting together the lineup for Freespace Jazz Fest, which is his first all-jazz event.
“It hit me that it hadn’t been easy to find female jazz musicians,” he says. “It’s a problem; not only in jazz but also in classical music and pop music. Why can’t society produce more female jazz musicians? It’s not just about funding; it goes much deeper than that. Is it education? Or the cultural situation? These are the things we have to investigate.”
While the Freespace Jazz Fest has officially been in the works for just over a year, Kung admits it’s been a long time coming.
“As I looked at the [local] music scene in the last decade, I realised the government was putting a lot of funding into Western classical and Chinese traditional music, while jazz and indie music were being neglected,” he says. “In Hong Kong and a lot of Asian cities, Western classical music is seen as ‘high art’, while jazz and indie are viewed like entertainment or pop culture. This is very short-sighted.”
It is encouraging, Kung says, that in the last two or three years LCSD has been paying more attention to jazz programming. “It’s exciting that LCSD are finally noticing that we have some good young jazz musicians and they want to engage them,” he adds.
Any event that brings people – from hardcore jazz aficionados to picnicking families looking for a patch of lawn – is one to be savoured in trying times. Kung is often described as a “music activist”, and his outlook on art as a unifier is arguably more relevant now than ever before.
“I’m not a politician, I am an artist,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how chaotic the world becomes; I still believe that art creates positive energy, awareness and sensitivity. And sensitivity and awareness can keep us on the right track. I think a big, free, outdoor event – when you do it right – can have a positive impact on a lot of people. That is my biggest goal.”
In response to the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, the organisers of Freespace Jazz Fest have rescheduled the festival to start and finish earlier on both days. The Saturday lineup now runs from 10:30am-8pm and the Sunday lineup runs from 11am-7pm. The organisers have also made the two daytime programmes at The Box – Saturday Medley and Sunday Ensemble – completely free to enjoy.
Date: November 9-10
Time: 10:30am – 8pm (Saturday); 11am – 7pm (Sunday)
Entry: Free; three events ticketed separately.
Visit the Freespace Jazz Fest website for more information.