Coco Zhao’s band first from China to play jazz festival



torstar news service


Coco Zhao’s Possicobilities will be the first band from China to perform at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival, which runs in throughout the city from June 22 to July 1.


“Wow! Cool! I’m excited to hear that,” says Coco Zhao at the news that his band Possicobilities will be the first ever group from China to perform at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival.

It’s 2 a.m. in Shanghai, where the 30-year-old vocalist is just winding down from a regular hotel gig.

“I get a lot of work,” he says in a phone interview. “The people in Shanghai — both Chinese and foreigners — love having parties and having a jazz band at their event.”

Surprisingly, that city’s half-dozen jazz destinations face the same major issue as their North American counterparts: Attracting young people to the genre, which has been slowly gaining popularity in China since the late ‘90s. “Mostly, it’s the older generation who come to shows, because they remember when jazz was in Shanghai (before the cultural revolution),” explains Zhao, who is at the forefront of the burgeoning jazz movement. “But we have some young listeners as well, because we don’t have many old players here and the young musicians bring out a young audience.”

Zhao grew up in a small town in central China to Chinese opera performer parents. He studied classical piano and oboe, but gigged in piano bars singing Chinese and English pop songs before discovering jazz in his late teens.

“One day, I saw this (guitarist/singer friend) sing Misty and Summertime, and I was amazed and fascinated by the music. I found the special harmonies of jazz quite interesting, and I really enjoyed the colours of the music and the flow.

“I asked him for the song charts and he let me know about Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.”

Immersed in the albums that musician lent him, Zhao was hooked.

“I knew of the concept of jazz music and had probably heard it at some friend’s home, but this music was not popular in China back then and I never put those two things together. Classical theory is so much different than jazz theory, but music is music. I learned (to sing jazz) by listening to people on CDs, or watching them live and asking questions, but mostly I’m self-taught.”

Zhao garnered acclaim singing classic Duke Ellington and Cole Porter standards in English.

One major influence was the late singer Betty Carter, whom he met at the Shanghai jazz festival in 1997 and jammed with at a local club. Another influence earned him the moniker “The Boy Billie Holiday from China” the first time he performed in Paris.

“I was listening to a lot of Billie Holiday when I started. And, when I went to France, I guess they could hear that in my singing. But that’s more of me 10 years ago. I hope I still don’t have a Billie Holiday sound. I love her dearly, but no one wants to be someone else.”

These days, Zhao, who has performed across Europe, Southeast Asia and at the Montreal Jazz Festival, favours interpreting the lyrics written to Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter compositions.

His current CD, Dream Situation, is comprised of modern jazz arrangements of old Chinese folk songs, echoing the fusion taking place on the Shanghai jazz scene.

“A lot of musicians are coming here now from other Chinese cities, and musicians are getting more opportunities to play the music they want and they are learning from each other, so there is more variety, not only classical standard jazz, but also Latin jazz and free jazz.”

Zhao, who has been considering the pursuit of jazz studies outside of China “to get more vocabulary for my music,” said his classically trained parents have a universal approach to his choice of career.

“They don’t understand very well what’s going on; it’s such a different genre and different generation. But as long as I’m doing something I love, then they give me 200-per-cent support.”

For more information about the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival, visit

festival high notes

  • The festival ranks up-and-comers such as 13-year-old Montreal sensation Nikki Yanofsky and Sean Lennon (son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono) alongside over-65 masters, such as Mavis Staples, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and Jean-Luc Ponty.

  • Primarily the lineup is comprised of relatively youthful, experienced players. They include Chris Botti, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Holly Cole, Mike Stern, Louise Pitre, Derek Trucks, Vijay Iyer, Don Byron and Delfeayo Marsalis.

  • There is also an exciting slate of ensembles, including the kick-off of the reunion tour of jazz fusion band Manteca.

  • The first Toronto appearances by Trio Beyond and Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood.

  • The only Canadian date for the United Trombone Summit, featuring Fred Wesley, Slide Hampton, Steve Turre and Wycliffe Gordon. When someone sang ‘Misty’ to Coco Zhao, the penny dropped for the classically trained musician. As jazz gains popularity in his homeland, he will be the Toronto Jazz Festival’s first ever performer from China.