An upbeat instrumental blues piece with a contemporary jazz flavour opened the concert of jazz female vocalist Vanessa Rubin and her trio from New York. This one-off performance was the second of a series of six in the program Jazz Up organized by the Cultural Presentations Section of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
Jazz's early stirrings came from black America and it flourishes to this day. Its very roots is functional harmony - the creation and resolution of harmonic tension over time - is for most part unique to occidental musical culture.
Jazz is an offspring to the rich musical tradition of black American musical forms such as slave and work songs, spirituals and gospel which emerged out of a mix of African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and performance styles (the Caribbean being a key midway point in the slave trade between Africa and the Americas) but also including European song forms and harmonic principles.
Jazz blues pieces that Rubin performed on the night was really about singing in a melancholic state and exploring through musical improvisation the very depths of that condition to effect a personal transformation into a joyous new state of possibility.
A statuesque Rubin sallied on the stage in a lime-green Thai silk shirt and pant ensemble - a rather unusual outfit for the concert hall that marks her unpretentious mannerisms and general nonchalance. For almost ninety minutes, she performed her own compositions along with jazz standards and unique jazz interpretations of 1970's popular songs and Broadway numbers.
It has long been debated whether the intimate nature of jazz performances or ensemble music is suited to large concert halls. On the night, amplifiers and large speakers were installed to enable the 1,500-seat capacity concert hall to be filled with sound. However, the audience at the sides and immediate front suffered by not receiving a balanced reception.
Rubin was frank enough to inform her audience that she had only "woken up" at the middle of the concert. Possibly due to jet lag, the diva was not fully alert during the first half. It was possible that some of the pieces were under-rehearsed -- the piano accompaniment did not appear to harmonically match the melody well in the adaptation of Matchmaker Matchmaker from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In another piece, she conveyed to the audience that the band had not ended the piece as early as she would have liked -- that the trio will just not let the music go.
The individual musicianship and communication amongst the three musicians was effective but when combined with the vocals, the piano accompaniment at times tended to be too busy. The solos were also generally longer than one would expect in a jazz vocal performance and this had the effect of dominating certain pieces.
The drumming was tight and clean and the bass playing soulful and creative. Unfortunately, Rubin herself seemed ill at ease, particularly during the first half of the concert and did not realize her full potential. Her choice of repertoire was imaginative but the arrangements, often complex and unusual, did not always work. Appearing amateurish at times, they may have been able to be pulled off with increased practice and communication.
Improvisation, however, is a main facet of Jazz and every live performance is a true test of musicianship. Each time a performer gets up to play, they are faced with a varying amount of pressure, challenge and excitement that makes every single performance unique. In this case, the organizers could have contemplated allowing the performers more preparation time after their gruesome long haul flights.
Attending a live performance, especially one of jazz, provides a one-off opportunity to appreciate performers playing at a particular moment and venue and as a function of the combined interaction of the audience, the band and the soloists. This creates a set of variables that make live performances an irreplaceable experience.
Rubin clearly has a vocal talent and depth of soul and intellect in the spirit of legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and is capable of producing world-class performances and recordings. However, the Hong Kong performance did not reach its expected standard leaving the audience eager to witness Rubin performing at her full potential.