How does one get the inside info on what venues are “hip” and pure to perform at? For guitarist Eric Shen, it’s simply by being yourself. Musicians have always been aware of the places to play to please an audience versus the stages that the performers themselves truly value; these criteria don’t always coincide. However, in the case of LA’s West Adams Jazz Music Festival, there is a perfect union. The festival was founded nearly twenty years ago in a neighbourhood that took advantage of the world class musicians LA has to offer. Nowadays, the attendance of the festival boasts nearly 5,000 attendees who travel from as far away as Australia to watch the incredible talent it offers. The Eric Shen Quartet was invited to perform at this year’s West Adams Jazz Music Festival on the same stage as Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Sarah Daye and the show’s MC/star of HBO’s Ballers London Brown. The huge audience in attendance was primed for Shen’s release of original music such as “Standard Incident” release with Nolan Shaheed.
The West Adams Jazz Music Festival has more than its share of hard core jazz music fans, which is why Shen presented a number of his own arrangements of such beloved standards like “One Mint Julep”, “Green Dolphin Street”, and “In a Sentimental Mood.” Perhaps more than any other musical genre, Jazz is about the individual statement; the fans in attendance at this year’s West Adams Jazz Music Festival were ecstatic about the way Eric and his band (including Gabriel Donate on drums, Aaron Chung on upright bass, and Landon Tynes on trumpet) were speaking through their instruments. From their up tempo first song, the quartet had the crowd in a fervour; proving it’s not only the audience at events like Coachella that become raptured by the music. Shen remarks, “I definitely chose the setlist based on my understanding that there are a lot of true jazz fans at this festival but it’s not JUST about listening. There’s plenty of energy in straight eighth note music but a traditional swing makes them shake their body naturally.” The back and forth interaction between the crowd of thousands and the Eric Shen Quartet testifies that “popular” music has no monopoly on dancers.
Eric Shen has proven himself equal to the heroes of his youth by appearances at festivals such as this and performances on legendary stages like Hollywood’s Catalina Bar & Grill. Recently past and present mixed in the occurrence of Shen recording his first original release with jazz legend Nolan Smith. Smith has worked with some of the most important and influential names in music as musical director for Marvin Gaye, lead trumpet with Count Basie, and various musical acts including Carol King, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and others. When the two met to discuss Smith engineering the record, spontaneous creativity erupted. Eric recalls, “I met Nolan at his house he asked me to play something. I played a few Thelonious Monk songs and my own compositions to him and he liked it. I showed the written charts of my music to Nolan and he just suddenly picked up his trumpet and started to improvise all over my song.”
The path of a modern jazz musician like Eric Shen necessitates a benevolent duality. One must be steeped and well-versed in tradition but also offer an individual voice. While Shen boasts a huge fan base in Taiwan, America is still expanding for this guitar talent. Social media is one of the tools that is essential for any successful musician these days and it has contributed to the international notoriety of Eric’s career. He concedes that this is true but he still prefers the tried and true method of playing gigs and touring to spread the word. He notes, “I do as much as I can on social media and it certainly has its positive effect but I believe jazz music is art music and it demands the listener’s full attention. There’s no substitute for being in a small club or even a huge festival and forgetting everything else as we all come together to share a musical moment.”