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Jazz singer sticks to his iDEALs
By Lu Feiran

Shanghai-based vocalist Coco Zhao is well-known in the Chinese jazz scene for blending Chinese elements, especially old Shanghai tunes, with Western melodies and vibe.

Zhao was classically trained in oboe performance, and later in composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and since then he has immersed himself in the study of Chinese traditional music, Western classical music and jazz.

When he was only 19, Zhao was praised by Parisian media as the "Boy Billie Holiday from China." He has performed at jazz festivals in Europe and North America and released four albums. He adapts favorites and writes his own songs. He mostly sings in Chinese.

Zhao, in his mid-30s, appeared on first season of the popular talent show "The Voice of China" and tonight he and his band Possicobilities will be among the performers at the iDEALShanghai Awards Night, hosted by Shanghai Daily, at The Peninsula Shanghai. Zhao will be awarded "The Voice of iDEALShanghai" at the gala night.

Zhao was born in a musical family of traditional opera singers in central China's Hunan Province. Both parents sang Qi Opera, a local Hunan style, which influenced him from an early age.

"I can say that I grew up in music," he tells Shanghai Daily. "When I was a teenager, I always loved singing in the bathroom, since it's a great place for mixing natural sounds."

Zhang studied classical oboe performance and at the age of 16 he was recruited by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he studied composition, especially atonal composition. He wrote songs and played with bands around Shanghai.

His jazz journey began in late 1995, when he was performing at the Cotton Club in Xuhui District. The bar's founder, American Matthew Harding, requested that he play "Misty," a 1954 classic by Erroll Garner. At that time he was playing guitar.

Harding was impressed and Zhao says he was "deeply fascinated" by the music. "From then on, my musical road seemed to become clear."

He started his own jazz band, Possicobilities (piano, bass, violin and drums), and taught himself more about jazz, listening, learning and imitating. From swing to jazz-funk to acid-jazz, Zhao listened to all kinds of jazz. Classics like "Route 66," "Autumn Leaves" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" were among his favorites.

In 1997, he performed at a jazz festival in Shanghai, singing alongside US jazz legend Betty Carter (1929-1998). In 1998, when US President Bill Clinton visited China, Zhao was invited by the US Consulate General in Shanghai to perform for the Clinton family.

In addition to foreign works, Zhao was greatly influenced by Shanghai jazz from the 1940s to 1960s. Zhao points out that in 1947, Paramount, one of the best nightclubs in Shanghai, recruited a jazz band comprised of Chinese musicians, believed to be the first all-Chinese band. Those musicians and their successors went on to create many favorites. He calls Chinese jazz at that time "very energetic, bold and unrestrained."

In 2006, Zhao released the album "Dream Situation" in North America, and 90 percent of the songs were adapted from old Shanghai songs. "I wanted to pay my respect to the predecessors who inspired me," he says.

That year he and his band were invited to the Montreal Jazz Festival, the first Chinese band to perform at the event.

But the album wasn't released in China until a year later in 2007. Zhao says he had intended to release it first in China but couldn't find a suitable record company.

"Record companies said my music was too minority-oriented, thus they couldn't make money from it," he says.

He finally found one. Zhao says he hopes that the Chinese pop music market, including producers, radio DJs and fans, could be more open-minded.

"I always have the feeling that Chinese people have only one standard when it comes to deciding whether a work is good or bad: whether they understand it," he says. "In Western pop music jazz is considered 'special interest' but people are still willing to listen and embrace it."

This year, China's hit talent show, "The Voice of China," based on "The Voice of Holland," invited Zhao to participate. He had intended to decline because the show's schedule conflicted with his performances in Europe, but he later joined the show since he thought it would be an opportunity for more Chinese to get in touch with jazz, and for him to get acquainted with more talented singers. "Voice" is a big cut above most talent shows, and recruits very talented singers.

He had to fly back and forth between Shanghai and Switzerland in an exhausting schedule and felt that his Shanghai performance wasn't top-notch. He says he didn't regard it as a contest, just a chance to sing.

But Zhao passed the first round and according to the show's rules, he chose Taiwan singer Harlem Yu, one of the judges, as his instructor and mentor. Yu gave him some advice about controlling his emotion on stage, but they didn't have much time to communicate.

He didn't make it into the second round in the ongoing show, but his appearance on "Voice" won him more Chinese fans.

"It's good that I have more opportunities to demonstrate my music," Zhao says.

"I'm looking forward to reactions to my new album next year. They are like a diary recording my self-analysis."

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