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Interview: Ted Lo on jazz, Herbie Hancock, and tackling Chinese music

Hong Kong’s very own godfather of jazz is spreading the love with the HKCO this Valentine’s Day. We find out what he’s got in store

Ted Lo

Love is in the air this February and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is ready to make the city swoon with a collaboration with Ted Lo entitled Romancing the Jazz. Widely known as the ‘godfather’ of jazz in Hong Kong, Lo is curating a programme of jazz originals, Chinese folk tunes and Cantopop selections all arranged for the Chinese ensemble. Fusing his jazz sensibilities, the Chinese orchestra as well as pop influences – Cantopop stars Justin Lo and Gin Lee round out the programme – Lo is promising something special.

Lo studied at Berklee College of Music in the 70s, the first Hongkongers ever to do so. Shortly after that, he earned his stripes recording with jazz giants in New York during the 80s, including but not limited to pianist-composer-legend Herbie Hancock, fusion drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophone whirlwind Michael Brecker and bossa nova crooner Astrud Gilberto. After his adventures abroad, Lo returned to Hong Kong in the 90s and continues to work nonstop across the local scene, whether jazz or pop, and has been notable for collaborating with and mentoring his nephew Cantopop singer Justin Lo. However, we start back at the beginning…

Hi Ted! So, what were your first experiences with music and jazz?
My musical background was pretty much from the 1960s. In Hong Kong in the 60s, there wasn’t much of a jazz scene. It was all radio music. So one day, a friend of mine turned me on to this group called Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. The first time I heard this kind of music, with its different harmonies, I liked it. That was my turning point, when I started to listen to more than just pop music.

Who were the first musicians you listened to when pursuing jazz?
At the time I was in Berklee, I was exposed to all the masters back then, like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, you name it.

You worked with Herbie at one point, didn’t you?
I was on an album he produced. It was a project and I did the gig as a studio musician.

And what was it like, meeting Herbie?
Fantastic. It was around my debut, one of the first recording sessions I did. He flew me to LA while I was still a student at Berklee. I was really lucky. I just did two tracks on the keyboard. It was amazing. He’s a beautiful person and after the recording session, it was just me and him. So I said to him, “Herbie, man, I’m a big fan, could you play for me?” We were in this room together and he played for half an hour for me.

You yourself are widely regarded as the godfather of jazz in Hong Kong. What do you think about that?
It’s an age thing, I guess [laughs]. But it’s kind of true because I started very early as a Chinese person. I was the first person from Hong Kong to graduate from Berklee and that’s because I started there early.

Do you think about that often, that you’re basically a pioneer of jazz in Hong Kong?
I don’t really think about that too often. I’m not a jazz purist, if you ask me. I really love all kinds of music. And being back in Hong Kong for over 20 years, I’ve been doing all kinds of music. A lot less jazz, more other stuff, but I have no complaints. I just love music and I love providing a service and doing my best.

Let’s talk about the performance you’re doing with HKCO, Romancing the Jazz, which involves a mix of pop tunes and Chinese music, folk music and your originals. Is it very different to be arranging for a Chinese orchestra?
It’s been amazing. I would say it might be the most challenging project of my entire career, seriously! I started working on the music six months ago. And wow, I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s been crazy, I’ve been learning so much.

And it’s a contemporary Chinese ensemble that you're working with…
Technically it’s still jazz theory, jazz harmony, but this is the first time I’m learning about Chinese instruments and how to make them sound good and to arrange for that kind of orchestra. That’s the most challenging part, since I’m exclusively using Chinese instruments, except for Sylvain Gagnon, the jazz bassist I invited to the show. I’m mostly working with traditional instruments and because jazz is all about groove, different rhythms like swing or latin, I have to assimilate those kinds of styles with the percussion instruments. That’s one of the challenges, to make it work and put together these different grooves.

What were some of the bridges that you had to build? I know that Chinese folk music tends to use a lot of the pentatonic scale, for example...
Well there are several songs whose melodies are 100 percent pentatonic. But I’m really orchestrating jazz to give it a different flavour. It’s a jazz concert. It’s jazz. And for me it’s such an eye opener. I’m learning a lot about the sound of Chinese instruments. It’s amazing. They’re so colourful. I was never familiar with Chinese orchestras. I have some experience with Western orchestras but this is a whole different kind of thing.

What was the biggest surprise for you during the orchestration process?
The biggest surprise for me was learning the timbre and sound of instruments I’ve never heard much of before. Take the erhu, for example. I thought that was rather close to a violin, but it has just two strings and it’s actually a whole different sound. A very expressive instrument, even with its more limited range compared to a violin. It’s the same with the guan. It’s got a flute vibe to it, but that was before I heard it close up and discovered it’s actually got a whole different sound to it. I got to see that because I’m working with individual soloists whom I’m getting together with on a regular basis to learn about the instrument and also coaching them on how to improvise. I think they’re pretty excited about it.

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