Interview with Coco Zhao
Coco Zhao is a singer, composer, and performer. He has gained worldwide recognition and received invitations to renowned music festivals around the globe. Youth Daily has called him “China’s most promising young jazz musician”. In 1997, Coco Zhao cooperated with famous jazz singer Betty Carter during her performance at the International Jazz Festival, in Shanghai. In 1998, he was selected to perform for American president Bill Clinton and his family during their visit to Shanghai. In 2010, he received a Rockefeller Foundation Asian Cultural Council Scholarship. Throughout all these years, he has participated in several concerts and festivals in China, the United States, Canada, France, England, and many other places.
Pedro Steenhagen. Born in the province of Hunan, you were educated at the Wuhan Music Academy and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Back then, there was no jazz education available in China, but now, you are one of the country’s most creative and expressive artists in contemporary jazz, mixing traditional and modern styles, both Chinese and Western. Can you talk a bit about your trajectory and career highlights? How did you fall in love with jazz?
Coco Zhao. I fell in love with jazz in 1995 or 1996. Before that, however, I started my career with classical music, because other types of music were considered as rebel back in the conservatory, so later on a bunch of schoolmates and I began playing rock and pop music in local clubs in Shanghai. I remember one night, when we were playing at Cotton Club, one American backpacker from the audience had brought a guitar and asked if he could play some tunes too; we said yes, and he played “Misty and Autumn Leaves”. That was the first time I had contact with jazz, both the word and the sound. We asked him for the charts of the tunes, and I started trying to learn about jazz from there, and the more I learned, the more I fell in love with it. It’s an ongoing process of falling in love for me.
Regarding some career highlights, I would begin with the year 2006, when I played in the Montreal Jazz Festival with my formal band, the Possicobilities. We were the first Chinese band which played in this festival, and in that same year, I ended up releasing my album, “Dream Situation”, with musicians who played with me back then in Shanghai. Afterwards, I went on more tours in Canada, the United States, and some European countries. Another highlight would be the Rockefelller Foundation Asian Cultural Council Scholarship I received in 2010. This scholarship allowed me to go to the United States and stay in New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco, but mostly in the first two cities, to dig into jazz roots. It was a great experience for me. It really opened my senses and expanded my world for music and art. With that said, I like to think of all my shows as highlights, because each time is unique: the venues are different, audiences are different, and even I am different.
I have recently released an album, “Shanghai Shanglow”, with JZ All Star Big Band. For me, it’s a milestone. After 20 years working hard on music, you continue to have something to say to yourself as an artist. Moreover, I would like to think it’s also a milestone for jazz in China, because most musicians from the albums are musicians who have played in China for a long time – some of them were born in Shanghai, some are from other Chinese cities, and some are even from other countries, but the fact that everyone lives or has lived, played, and still plays in Shanghai connects us. The album was produced by JZ All Star Big Band and I, and we were very lucky to have worked with great musicians in this album, such as Mats Holmquist, Alec Haavic, Antonio Hart. We have also integrated and collaborated with Guqin Player Wuna, and KunQu vocalist ZhangJun, in order to have Chinese music elements in it. It’s an album with rearranged Chinese or Shanghainese folk tunes, as well as jazz standards, and some of my own original compositions. Everybody played their heart out, and I think all of us have made a great work on this album. I am looking forward to going back to China next January, as I already have some shows scheduled there.
Pedro Steenhagen. Jazz first entered China through Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, but, during the Cultural Revolution, it seemed to fade away in the national scenery. In the 1980s and 1990s, it made a comeback in Beijing and Shanghai and has become increasingly relevant since then. How have Chinese singers and composers explored jazz music for the past two decades? Which are the main cities where it has flourished in the country?
Coco Zhao. I think the scenery has both evolved and improved a lot. Right now, we all know Beijing and Shanghai were the two cities which started the “jazz retro revolution”, before jazz began spreading out to cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and now also in Chengdu, Changsha, Chongqing, Qingdao, etc. Indeed, even small cities have jazz scenes and musicians nowadays. I am very happy I could be a part of this movement. In addition, some jazz friends and I have been doing online performances and teaching during these pandemic times, so the internet can be very helpful to reach new people and contribute to spread jazz music in China beyond the big cities and their jazz clubs and festivals.
Regarding the musicians, in China, we have started annual jazz competitions about three years ago, and I was invited to be part of the jury on some occasions. I remember that, in the last two years, especially in the last one, I have seen a lot of promising young jazz musicians, and their music is very original, innovative, and excellent in many aspects. I am happy to say they are delivering good music, and great new ideas and concepts. All the juries were excited to see young local musicians, mainly from 16 to 25 years old, performing so well. We even had one 10-year-old boy playing the piano. We still have a long way to go in China, but we are on the right path, and we still have a lot to fall in love with on this road.
Of course, in the past, we already had lots of great musicians, but almost all of them were foreigners. Now, we have exceptional local musicians. It’s amazing to see that, so we have to say big thanks for those American, Brazilian, French, German, British and other musicians from all over the world who came to China in the past decades. Some of them never left and remained in China, by the way. I would say that the most romantic thing to do is not to simply say “I love you”, but to show that “I am here, and you are here”. This is what these people have done, and, for me, that is the best thing about this musician fellowship. Big awards are not necessarily the most important thing when it compares to such strong and loving fellowships; the greatest part is that everybody is there together, playing music in China, in Shanghai and other cities.
Pedro Steenhagen. In September 2021, the song “Sutil Cintilar”, interpreted by you and Zé Renato, was launched. Besides being extremely beautiful and poetic, both in terms of lyrics and melody, it can be seen as an important landmark in the musical cooperation between China and Brazil. What is the story behind this partnership between you, Zé Renato, and Pedro Luís? How was this experience to you? And what do you feel when you hear this song?
Coco Zhao. This partnership was suggested by Evandro Menezes de Carvalho, my lǎo péngyǒu 老朋友 (in English, old friend) from Brazil, and he introduced to me this song from Zé Renato and Pedro Luís, “Sutil Cintilar”. The funny thing is that, until some weeks ago, I had never had the chance to talk to them directly. Before this online meeting from RBChina (Rede Brasileira de Estudos da China), we had only spoken through that song, but that is the beautiful thing about music: it is a channel to communicate with people, even if we do not exactly get the words or the language – like game players, if they play the same game.
I love “Sutil Cintilar”. It’s a beautiful song with a beautiful melody, it’s joyful and has an interesting rhythmic flow, with many sub-divisions in the rhythm. Brazilian music is complex, and, unfortunately, I do not speak Portuguese, which is the language this song was written in. Chinese is a single syllable language, so there is no word like coração (in English, heart), for example, with three syllables. As a Chinese person, I tried to write my lyrics in Chinese to fit in the rhythm and the melody of the Brazilian music. My goal was to find a way to get in the groove of the song, all while following the natural flow of my language too. This was the challenging part. I did not want it to be too rigid, just a translation or something like this, so I had to really see through it, to really find the flow between the Chinese language and the Brazilian rhythm and melody based on the Portuguese lyrics.
It was hard, but also fun. I like to spend time doing this, and it is part of the process of creating good music. If you find a special connection with the song, you can touch on profound feelings. To be honest, when I first wrote the lyrics in Chinese, everyone told me they were nice, but did not relate exactly to what the song was about. Indeed, the song sounds very romantic, and I could not avoid experiencing love feelings, but, afterwards, I understood the idea. You see, there is a smaller kind of love, more intimate, that between two individuals, for instance; and there is a bigger kind of love, which transcends this scope and may relate to a community, to humanity, to a deeper meaning which goes beyond the perception I had at the beginning.
So, I went back to write the lyrics with this new perspective, and it changed how I delivered my performance. The Portuguese and the Chinese lyrics are different, as you can see in the final version of the song. However, they have their common grounds and are comparable in terms of what they make you feel, and that is the true and most important language of music. When I finally talked to Zé Renato and Pedro Luís, it was a very nice meeting. I still had this doubt in my mind, and I asked myself what they really thought about the result of our partnership, and, after we had so much fun talking about it, I felt they really enjoyed it. This experience left me wanting to properly learn how to sing the song in Portuguese even more. After all, they sounded great both in Portuguese and in Chinese, which is amazing.
Pedro Steenhagen. Your unique contributions to jazz and the musical scene as a whole have been truly impressive, resulting in a widespread admiration from critics and the public, who look forward to knowing your next moves. What projects have you been working on recently? Do you have any plans to perform in Brazil and, possibly, develop new songs mixing Chinese and Portuguese?
Coco Zhao. I would say that, at the moment, my main project is my online teaching program. I started this program last May, and it has been a remarkable experience. I feel great to have the chance to engage with other musicians and singers. When I teach them, it is like a relearning process for myself too. I see younger people are satisfying themselves and proving themselves in music because of me, and this feeling is spectacular. I feel I am having a positive impact on other lives and being useful, even when I am not onstage. Nevertheless, I am also looking forward to having a tour in China, and hopefully in Europe as well, with the musicians involved in the album “Shanghai Shanglow”.
As for projects in Brazil, I really want to perform in the country and meet with Zé Renato and Pedro Luís in person. We are checking ways to expand our partnership, and I even sent them a song of mine on the other day, mentioning that maybe they could write Portuguese lyrics for Chinese songs, and they said they would love that. Hopefully they will contact me again soon with some beautiful lyrics in Portuguese and we can develop more songs together.
Finally, it is worth noting that I have another project with Brazilian musicians Julio Falavigna, who is a drummer, and Bianca Gismonti, who is a pianist. We had a great time performing together, and the songs will be launched soon. For example, we have recorded “Mòlìhuā 茉莉花” (in English, “Jasmine Flower”), in which I sing this traditional song in Chinese, and they play their instruments mixing Chinese and Brazilian melodies and rhythms. We have also recorded “Méiguì Méiguì Wǒ Ài Nǐ 玫瑰玫瑰我爱你” (in English, “Rose, Rose, I Love You”), and it has been a thrilling ride. Furthermore, we intend to record songs in Portuguese, and we chose “Flor de Lis” (in English, “Lily Flower”), from Djavan, as the first one. Since I am the only vocalist, I will have to learn how to sing this in Portuguese. Wish me luck on that!
Interview conducted by: Pedro Steenhagen Date of publication: November 30th, 2021