How do you like your improv jazz? Completely mental? Then SWIM Collective is for you. It’s unusual for contemporary free jazz to feature a vocalist; three vocalists even moreso. But this is the ensemble’s strength and USP: a highly theatrical, human sound. An accompanying band of harp, keyboard, cello, percussion and electronics allows for a diverse range of expression.
Some of the vocal improvisation is straight out of the Toronto Blessings of the 1990s, a flurry of impassioned tongues, over dissonant spreads of expressionist harp and piano cluster-chords. Sometimes the singers merely coo gently; sometimes they are silent.
One of the most fascinating things about these through-composed, non-repeating, freely improvised pieces, is how the style slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) weaves in and out of free-rhythm effects and anchored, rhythmic, tonal grooves. The whole ensemble are really listening to each other and giving each other space, never trying to dominate the sound. Sometimes this leads to moments of complete silence.
Audience participation is highly encouraged. Everyone is given some tissue paper, and a lucky few are given some spoons. Being conducted in and out, at different volume levels, the sound of paper rustling and spoons clinking en masse is quite mesmerising, and the chance to be involved feels pretty special.
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It’s hard to put into words how impressive and special this weekly jazz night is at this tiny live music venue near the party district around Central. Tjoe Man Cheung is a young jazz guitarist of exceptional skill, who, despite his unassuming demeanour, is clearly an excellent bandleader too. Moreover, he seems to know every dynamite musician in Hong Kong, so his “jam session” ends up being of a ridiculously high standard.
NTBM stands for “Not To Be Missed”, and this is apt. The actual “house band” line-up might be slightly different each Sunday evening, but whoever you get, you can be sure of a few pre-rehearsed tunes of outstanding quality, hovering around contemporary jazz-funk, to suit Tjoe’s guitar.
But the star attraction is the jam. Musician after musician, every audience member who joins the action is unique and phenomenal. There doesn’t appear to be any sheet music, even for the niche and complex numbers: just a quick murmur amongst themselves of the title and the key, and away they go, sounding tighter than a lot of pro bands. How is this possible? You may find a Japanese tap-dancer joins in with an improvised solo worthy of its own Broadway show, or an avant-garde vocalist improvises disquietingly around a classic, or a drummer changes tack and rocks out on a melodica (à la Jacob Collier).
Audience participation is very much encouraged. A couple of singers get up who are not first-rate, but relish the opportunity to perform. Little percussion instruments get passed around. It’s a steal at $100 HKD entry; although this entry fee is waived for latecomers who miss the main show. The bar is outrageously expensive (think $75 HKD for a Diet Coke) but still NTBM.
Check out all the live music at Peel Fresco online.