Live Review from Wild Boar Music Festival 野豬音樂節:
1. 返公司 (original)
3. No way (original) rearranged version
4. Yes Girl
Come on, what does the K stand for, anyway? Kowloon Kool? Could be … Kowloon Kooks? Hmmm. Kowloon Kings? Doesn’t work … Maybe the O is silent? Mmmm, how about …. Kowloon Kats? That fits mighty fine – ‘cos damn these cats can swing.
The distinct honour of opening Hong Kong’s first socially distanced music festival was handed to the cryptically named Kowloon K – and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting recipient, the quartet’s brand of smooth, groovy, foot-tapping jazz-pop almost tailor-made to soundtrack awkward mingling, plastic glass-clunking and the army of late, confused punters trying to figure how, where and why they should scan a QR code to order refreshments to their private pod.
Kowloon K’s purist’s roots and serious chops were instantly in evidence from the first bars of opener 返公司’s head-nodding walking bassline and classic swing beat – and its tight double time outro that played out keyboardist Shuijin’s smart, showy solo. Indeed, it’s not surprising to learn the core rhythm section – Shuiji, six-string electric bassist Ho and drummer David – began as a classic piano trio jamming on the jazz standards songbook. Vocalist Charlie Chen and guitarist Justin were drafted in only last year, establishing the contrary quintet-in-flux on display today, clearly caught somewhere between traditions old and new – bop-pop, you might call it, a jazz aesthetic mobilised in service of vocalist Chen’s dulcet tones.
Their most serious stab at original songwriting so far is debut single No Way, sandwiched here in the middle of the set, an earnestly heartfelt meditation on life’s big decisions. “Make it right / Make the dream come true … Feel the pain / Release my mind to flow,” implores Chen in a deliberate, delicate delivery that calls to mind Katie Melua. The original recording’s acoustic treatment has been beefed up and rearranged for the stage, a swaying singalong-in-waiting.
Plagued by the bad sound which is forever the scourge of opening bands (and perhaps a side helping of an equally similar scourge: nerves), the track was aborted mid-way and re-started – “I have no breath,” Chen appeared to complain – an amateurish blunder I hope the band learned from. Note to musicians everywhere: never, ever stop midway through a song, however little you can hear yourself, or breathe.
Two contrasting covers by contemporary Japanese acts offered more mature moods – the languid, almost soporific groove of Tokyo Jihen’s 体 anchored by a thick backbeat and perked up by a stop-start chorus, while Naruyoshi Kikuchi’s Yes Girl showed off the band’s chops with a series of assured solos from Shuijin and Ho; only Justin, perhaps the least naturally jazzy player, took a few tentative bars to work up his improvisatory ideas.
But it was the two swinging originals bookending the set that cooked hardest; by closer為何不一了百了the quintet had found their step, locking into a squelchy funk around Ho’s bold bass groove in the Jamiroquai mode, and building to a stunning sci-fi synth solo and only slightly awkward audience slow-clap breakdown. Throughout the playing felt assured, if reserved; at times during the instrumental sections one is left wishing the soloists undo a button or two and let rip – dig deeper, groove harder, play longer.
At present, Kowloon K appears as a group in transition – both in the thrall of their traditionalist bop background, and restlessly open-minded to pursue poppier sounds – and the larger audience they will likely bring. This is no bad way to be at all, with the players’ ample musicianship the foundation future successes can be built on. And hey, jazz gigs pay better, too.