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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Chinese jazz singer Coco Zhao was probably destined for a career in music. He comes from a musical family. Both parents were involved in the Chinese opera, his mother as a singer.

Mr. COCO ZHAO (Chinese Jazz Singer): Every night - every day I hear my mom going…

(Soundbite of Mr. Zhao imitating an opera singer)

Mr. ZHAO: Really, my dad is a Chinese opera composer and, you know, that's how they got together. And I've been brought up in this environment every day, hearing them doing opera.

YDSTIE: And decided it wasn't for you?

Mr. ZHAO: I tried. I'm glad I didn't do that, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: Instead he found jazz. That American import thrived in Shanghai in the 1920s and '30s, brought there by a Chinese gangster with connections to the West. It was suppressed during China's Cultural Revolution. But jazz has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, thanks to Zhao and others.

Zhao has a new album called "Dream Situation." It features modern arrangements of standards popular in Shanghai more than 70 years ago. Coco Zhao and his arranger and violinist Peng Fei joined us recently in our Washington studios to talk about the new CD and their approach to jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

Mr. ZHAO: When we first started playing these songs in the public, some older generation - they're not really fond of it because it's just has changed so much and how, you know, how they used to hear.

Mr. PENG FEI (Violinist): They've heard the song for over a thousand times all their life, and then suddenly…

Mr. ZHAO: It's like this. They're like, why are you doing this? What are you doing? You know? So it's a little hard at the beginning, but you know what? Actually, nowadays, when we're performing these songs, they really like it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

YDSTIE: So, Peng Fei, how have you changed this song from the original? What would it have sounded like?

Mr. FEI: Sounds like…

(Soundbite of Mr. Fei humming a tune)

Mr. FEI: It sounds more like that. It's just like…

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

Mr. FEI: Yeah, that's more close.

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

Mr. ZHAO: Like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEI: Yeah.

YDSTIE: Big change.

Mr. FEI: That is a big change. Yeah.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Let's listen to another tune. This is also a song from the early Shanghai scene, as I understand it. It's called "Unavailable Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Unavailable Love")

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

YDSTIE: Coco, you have quite unique a vocal style. How did you develop that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZHAO: Thank you, first. I developed in my bathroom, in my shower room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZHAO: Yeah, I never had any vocal training, and I just, you know - but I like to sing always. And I just thought, oh, wow, you know, I want to try if I can sing out of shower, and I did.

Mr. FEI: And trust me, he's there for a long time, every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZHAO: That's right. Sometimes I start to sing when I wake up until I go to bed. And he goes, shut up. You sing too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Unavailable Love")

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

YDSTIE: How much of Chinese jazz was destroyed and lost in the Cultural Revolution?

Mr. ZHAO: I think, back in the Cultural Revolution time, because, you know, the whole country was demanding everybody was going to be the same and all singing propaganda, you know, playing propaganda music. So this jazz music has been left alone. I don't think it's been, you know, like, forgotten, you know? Maybe it was being hidden under someone's bed or inside someone's walls. But I think it's never really gone, but just never really - people never talked about it.

Mr. FEI: Yeah. People had it there in their heart.

Mr. ZHAO: Yeah.

Mr. FEI: But that was not only jazz. A lot of music.

Mr. ZHAO: It was a lot of things.

YDSTIE: A lot of things, right.

Mr. FEI: Even Chinese classical music…

Mr. ZHAO: Yeah.

Mr. FEI: …some of them are forbidden to play.

Mr. ZHAO: Yeah. There's only propaganda songs at that time.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Coco, you actually wrote one of the songs in this CD. It's called "Dream Situation."

Mr. ZHAO: Yeah. I wrote the lyrics. He wrote the melody.

YDSTIE: Oh, really? You wrote it together?

Mr. ZHAO: Mm.

Mr. FEI: Yeah.

YDSTIE: Well, let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of song, "Dream Situation")

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

YDSTIE: Would you translate the lyrics for us?

Mr. ZHAO: The stars are flowing through the shadows of the tree - a pair of closed eyes. The music seemed to forget the world as it had touched a certain moment, sleeping deeply inside of my body, as if it were also quietly watching over me. Then follow the stranger. All the dream situations arrived in silence.

(Soundbite of song, "Dream Situation")

YDSTIE: You know, Coco, you had an encounter with the famous jazz artist Betty Carter, who's now died. And she's - gave you some encouragement…

Mr. ZHAO: Oh, definitely.

YDSTIE: …as you were getting a little push back from people when you were redoing some of these songs or finding your vocal style. Tell us about that.

Mr. ZHAO: She was in Shanghai for the international jazz festival, and people were laughing at me at the time. Of course, at the time, you know, I was still immature, trying to, you know, find something, you know, new and something I would like to do. And when people were laughing at me and I didn't know, you know, like, should I keep going or should I just forget about it, you know, do as the way everybody else does? And she said, when people tell you to go forward, just try backward. If people try to go left, try right. You know, don't listen to others. Only listen to your own heart. And I think that put a big impact on me, that I learned I - just to keep going, you know, as the way I want.

YDSTIE: Well, Coco Zhao and Peng Fei. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. ZHAO: Thank you.

Mr. FEI: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ZHAO: (Singing in Chinese)

YDSTIE: To hear a live performance by Coco Zhao and Peng Fei and to hear them describe the jazz scene in China, go to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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