Shanghai Journal #2: Concert in Hong Kong


PIanos, jazz, and otherwise: I have a solo piano concert Wednesday, 23 January. Meanwhile, Janet’s meeting with her collaborators. Our perch: we’re in Hong Kong for the week, having traveled here after four days in Shanghai.

About the image at the head of this post: It’s a street not far from Jingling Road which isn’t far from the neighborhood known as the Bund.

What it really comes down to is peer at your own peril into a camera viewfinder in the middle of a street in Shanghai. But that’s true in New York City and London and any other big city? Although Shanghai at, I think 26 million residents, reduces NYC and London to mere villages?

Pianos and Jingling Road

A visit last week to Shanghai’s Jingling Road, a street with a million piano dealers worked out well. About when I thought I had reached situation hopeless, a dealer offered to rent me a new shrink-wrapped Yamaha upright, a U1 to be precise. It had just arrived in his shop. Considering I’ll only be in Shanghai for five months, this was truly a find.

Note to prospective piano renters in Shanghai : On Jingling Road is there’s a direct relationship between small dealers and friendly, knowledgeable, helpful service.

A diret relationship such that the big piano store where the Grotrian upright was the best piano in the store, the one the dealer said I could only play for two minutes because it was the best piano there. Well, if that piano is or was truly a magnficent instrument and therefore a privilege on which to play, even if for only two minutes, well:


Let that piano sound like the beauty it should be! But the larger point is that big music store did not feature knowledgable, helpful service. And the lesson, therefore, is we need small independents!

And why small independents? It’s because small independents often are more nimble in their decision-making.


Meanwhile, there was the Grotrian Steinweg grand I played in Chicago several years ago. The memory of that piano, it lingers!

Steinweg the piano company, that was Heinrich Steinway’s venture in Germany. That’s the same HS who later founded Steinway and Sons in the US.

Many years later, Steinway, the firm, sued Steinweg when they tried to open in the US with more or less the Steinway name. That’s how Grotrian Steinweig became Grotrian Steinweig and Steinway. It’s how Steinway and Sons retained their name as Steinway and Sons.

The important point is Grotrian Steinweigs are magnificent top-tier pianos.

It’s about time

I brought copies of my [new] CDs with me to Hong Kong. The CD, actually a two-disc set, is entitled It’s about time. It’s an unedited concert recording  from March of last year.

In America It’s about time will soon, very soon, be available on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, and all such places where fine music can be downloaded, etc. In the UK, It’s about time will be on iTunes and Spotify.

But for those who prefer physical objects, real pressed discs, yes they exist. Don’t hesitate to ask.

As for the name, It’s about time, it is about time I released a CD. Not to mention that music, temporal art that it is, well, of course, it’s all about time.

Improvising as a solo pianist

Over the last several years I’ve been working on improvising by myself. Me, myself, and the piano. It’s about time.

I’ve always felt the solo piano format in jazz is an ultimate. It’s more demanding than playing in a duo or trio or any other ensemble format.

Most pianists in jazz readily admit that. Many pianists in jazz never really become comfortable playing in a solo piano format.

Four who did are Art Tatum, Dave McKenna, Keith Jarrett, and Fred Hersch. Of course there are more.

What makes the solo pianist format in jazz so difficult is, as a soloist, bass, melody, accompaniment and all else and everything, they’re all things that one way or another have to be addressed.

What I’ve learned from and about this—having to address bass, accompaniment and melody all at once—and perhaps it’s obvious, is if you hear it then play it. If you don’t hear it then don’t play it.

In other words, play what you hear and omit the rest. Another lesson often mentioned but perhaps much less discussed is

Find your own way.

Always the exception

Yet, no one’s perfect. Therefore, play what you hear is an ideal, a something to strive for.

And find your own way? It’s a process and whether or not it qualifies as a goal is debatable.

The lesson might be pursue the perfect but recognise that process, the pursuit of the perfect, as one that comes, a priori, with built-in limitations.

That’s because, for one thing, sometimes we want want to play something we don’t or didn’t or can’t hear internally. And sometimes we do hear what we want to play but we just can’t quite get it out. There are all kinds of variations on those two.

And find your own way? My experience is find your own way is something to think and ruminate about away from the piano but never while playing the piano! That’s because owning a style, something recognisable, a signature as it were, is a good thing.

But self-consciously playing at or to a signature style, that’s something else entirely. It’s something else entirely as in we don’t want to imitate ourselves.

Or who knows? Maybe imitating ourselves is the best we can do? I remember hearing McCoy Tyner say on some nights he could only play at 59% of his full capability. But even on those nights he gave 100% of the full 59%!

A simple example?

It happens. We conceptualise an idea, but we can’t quite hear it.

The brain is hipper than the ear as I once heard Sam Rivers say. I think Sam Rivers meant our brains think abstractly and don’t always translate what we think or hear into something graspable much less communicable.

In other words, if we can’t formulate language with which to say something or if we can’t even see or hear a clear picture, how then do we communicate what we’d like to say? Does that apply to music?

In twos or threes?

My opinion is play it if you hear it and don’t play it if you don’t hear it are poles. But an idea itself, whether heard or not heard, that’s yet another pole.

Play if if you hear it <——> Don’t play it if you don’t hear it.

On the other hand, maybe in this case things represent themselves as a triangle where the three corners are

  • I hear it.
  • I don’t hear it.
  • I have an idea.

A philosophy of improvisation and philosophing about improviation—but in the end all we can do is improvise?


Meanwhile, moving along from two and threes, the piano has 88 keys. We can use them or not.

When improvising by myself that’s a strategy and a philosophy I find helpful. In practice, it’s a strategy and a philosophy that means, very simply:

Use all the keys on the piano rather than just the favoured few.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just easier and perhaps it’s much more practical to try to play what we hear. And then leave it at that.

Hong Kong, Shanghai, and vocabulary

I said in my previous post that Janet and I were picking up fragments of splintered, fractured, bits of Chinese. Even better, we’re articulating bits we’ve learned—well, definitely Janet much more than me!

From time to time we reap the reward. We’re understood!

But, I forgot to mention even though we remembered and realised the second we touched down in Hong Kong: the bits of Mandarin we collected in Shanghai are useless in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong!

In practice, that means our vocabularly in Hong Kong is, at best

唔該 (m goi).

唔該, more or less means thanks or thank you. Best as I can tell because of the four tones in Chinese, goi is pronounced a perfect fifth higher than the m that precedes it.

If I’m hearing and understanding that correctly, well, it’s graspable. It’s graspable because a perfect fifth is a perfect fifth? I doubt that it reduces that simply!

Skype, Facetime, and China

Meanwhile, I’ve have had no trouble connecting to America through Skype and Facetime. I’m more than pleased about that!

One of my huge concerns about relocating to Shanghai was whether or not I could stay in touch with the pianists I teach on Skype.

So, thankfully, yes, Skype and Facetime are just fine. I’ve already connected to family and friends.

Lessons and such will begin soon. I look forward to that!