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Saturday night in Beijing: Cool jazz, luke-warm police barricades, and hot chuan’r

Last night YJ and I went to the Forbidden City Concert Hall for the Nine Gates Jazz Festival, running in Beijing through next weekend. It was one of the only nights we had free, and–turns out–we picked a good one. I like jazz but I really haven’t explored the, uh, Beijing scene. I was prematurely dismissive. The “opening act” was Beijing jazz legends (a sentence I can now write without smirking) The Golden Buddha Trio, led by pianist Kong Hongwei (A.K.A. Jin Fo 金佛). There was no contest. Jin Fo and the boys blew the headliners, the Austrian-based modern jazz quartet The Philipp Nykrin Quartet, out of the building. I mean really. A group of foreigners haven’t been this caught out in Beijing since the Boxers were last in town.

I’ve played piano all of my life and I’ve seen a lot of good players. Kong is absolutely one of the best. In a perfect world—where taste and talent rule—Kong would be playing Carnegie Hall and nobody would have ever heard of Lang Lang. He’s that good.

Today in jazz it’s too easy to play “guess the influence” with musicians. The aforementioned Philipp Nykrin Quartet was a good example. They had a great sax player who clearly loved to get his John Coltrane on. It was good. But it had a real “jazz by numbers” vibe.

Kong wasn’t as easily pigeonholed. He had a little Bill Evans in the quieter moments, a dash or two of Vince Guaraldi, at times he even reminded me of Phish über-pianist Paige McConnell, but the closest comparison might be Keith Jarrett–minus the annoying yelps. Kong has incredible technique, which is not unusual for Chinese-trained musicians, but also great feeling and creativity in his playing which is a far rarer commodity here. (Compare with Lang Lang. Lang Lang’s performances are as technically brilliant and cold as a Lenovo computer, thus emotion must come in the form of endless head swishing and facial expressions that suggest a very sharp bowel obstruction.)

Turns out Kong and his band play every Friday at the East Shore Live Café. I know how I’m starting my weekends from now on.

At around 9:45 last night, we were walking past Tiananmen and ran right into…a police sweep. The police were clearing a 300 meter space directly in front of Mao’s portrait. Nobody knew why. We thought it might be a nightly drill, but there was a little too much chaotic rushing around and shouting for it to have been planned. From the barricade we could see several police vehicles, a lot of running around, and finally a group of uniformed PSB carrying a PLA soldier out of the gate and putting him into one of the white police vans.

After about twenty minutes—crisis apparently over—the cordon ended and we could pass freely down the sidewalk in front of the gate. YJ went into journalist mode and kept trying to find out what was going on but we both agreed that if it had been really serious they would have cleared the whole square, not just a 300 meter area. If the NYPD’s motto is “New York’s Finest” and the Mounties “Always get their man,” then the PSB is something more along the lines of “The fewer witnesses, the better.”

After that we strolled along the outside of the Forbidden City and were contemplating walking up to the Liujia Guo restaurant for dinner, but thought better of it and instead cabbed it back to Dongzhimen. We bypassed the overpriced cookie-cutter hot pot/barbecue honky-tonk that is Gui Jie and instead hit up our favorite hole-in-the-wall Xinjiang restaurant. Open late, cheap eats, fantastic chuan’r and—more often than not—a nightly scuffle. (The place doubles as a watering hole for some of the local yahoos.) We were not disappointed. Good times all around.