Coco Zhao with Jazzlab

Dates and Venue 24 & 25 June 2008 @ 9pm | Performance Works, Granville Island

Reviewer John Jane

Clear blue skies and a pleasant warm breeze blowing through False Creek made it a perfect evening for drinking beer (or wine) and listening to jazz and if you didn’t mind being some distance from the stage you could sit at one of the courtyard tables at the comfortable Performance Works theatre.

Obviously, many Vancouver jazz enthusiasts were already familiar with Coco Zhao’s repertoire and perhaps there were several of them returning after seeing his highly praised performance in this festival last year.

Coco Zhao is a product of the Shanghai Conservatory, where he leant to play the oboe, but actually grew up in Hunan province, where both his parents were professionally involved with traditional Peking opera. He is considered partly responsible for the revival of jazz music in his adopted hometown of Shanghai as evidenced by the number of jazz and blues clubs that have sprouted up in the city’s Maoming Road district.

In this evening’s performance, he was without the support of his long-time musical partner, arranger and violinist Peng Fei, and instead accompanied by the Quebec based Jazzlab, an eight-piece unit that included a five-piece brass section.

Jazzlab’s astute sense of Zhao's vocal style was surprisingly good and worked well on the blues-tinged Wo yao ni de ai (I Want Your Love) and the metro-hip Ai keyi yong (Unavailable Love). However, on the bossa-nova styled ballad “Yearning” that featured Richard Gagnon’s solo trombone the singer’s slight voice seemed to be overwhelmed with the band firing on all cylinders.

Although Zhao’s English is excellent, most of his material is performed in Mandarin. As with many Vancouver Jazz Festival gigs, the audience on this evening was a good mix, both in terms of age and ethnicity.

Zhao worked hard to connect with all sections of his audience and used English and Mandarin in the introduction to his repertoire. His opening tune was the vivacious Wo you yi ge gushi (I have a tale). His vocal range is close to countertenor that soars with emotion and spirit.

After what the featured performer promised would be “A very small break”, but in fact, was close to thirty minutes, he returned to the stage with a nod to nostalgia, performing San Nian (3 Years), with only piano accompaniment. Zhao defined it as a torch song from the 1920s when jazz thrived in Shanghai.

I don’t doubt that Coco Zhao has an acute knowledge of American jazz standards, but his only concession to the genre on this evening was the Ella Fitzgerald song, “Easy Living” sung in near impeccable English with his own distinctive nuances, yet with measured respect for the original.

I would like to see VIJF invite Coco Zhao back again next year, with the invitation extended to his regular side musicians.

© 2008 John Jane