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After a lot of downtime and the reflection that comes with it, DB saxophonist Blaine Whittaker
is ready to get back on stage. Elizabeth Kerr reports

PHOTOS BY Richard Gordonwww.richardgordonphotography.com

You’re not imagining it. There is such a thing as ’80s sax. You know the sound; that singular wail unique to semi-ballads from the decade of excess like You Belong to the City, Who Can It Be Now? and the high-water mark, Careless Whisper.

“It’s a speciality. It’s an era. I know the genre very well, particularly because I grew up in it. It was normal,” says jazz saxophonist Blaine Whittaker when asked what the deal is with that oily muscleman in Tina Turner’s old band. Blaine explains the evolution of the distinct sound, which emerged from the funk-soul of the 1970s, transformed by new recording techniques in the ’80s and unleashed by producers who let sax players let loose. Blaine plays those sax riffs often with local cover band On Point, but he’s well aware that “there is great pop sax from the ’80s, and there is cheese. I love it,” he says with a smirk, “but there is a craft to it.

That’s Blaine in a nutshell: dedicated to his craft but willing to embrace its more baffling elements. It’s a quiet Monday afternoon in Discovery Bay, and Blaine is looking relaxed and hale on Hemingway’s terrace, sipping a fruity concoction and nibbling on a meat-free lunch. He’s not a vegan evangelist, nor is he a teetotaler but a summertime health scare that involved a battery of EKGs and CT scans, combined with the stress of COVID lockdowns that put a serious crimp in his career compelled him to rethink his rock star lifestyle. At 50 on the dot, he figured it was time to practice moderation, eat right and get more exercise. A lifestyle pivot is understandable; choosing to settle in Hong Kong as a musician seems odd. But when Sydney native Blaine “re-met” his eventual wife Gillian in their hometown – they went to school together – it was a no-brainer. “When I asked her where she lived, she said Hong Kong. So to make that work someone had to go somewhere. I didn’t want to make her go back to Australia and I was a bit bored in Sydney.”

Blaine had released a record in Australia, played with jazz giants Wynton Marsalis and Vincent Herring, and backed James Morrison, so he thought it was time for a change. Hong Kong turned out to have a wealth of opportunities, and after arriving here in 2003, Blaine worked with Jacky Cheung, Joey Yung, Britpop band Blur, on AGA’s local hit Nights Without You and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic – to name a few.

“The only time I was ever terrified was at the rehearsal with the Philharmonic,” he admits. “I’m a jazz player and I wanted to kind of prove myself to these classical players. I kept missing the conductor’s directions because they do it differently in the two forms. The concert went fantastically, but that first rehearsal? Oh, man.”

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A lot of ink has been spilt about how grim 2020 was, rightly so, and Blaine is a bit melancholy when he thinks of how COVID gutted the music scene, and turned everyone’s lives upside down. “All my mates in Australia, the US and Canada got some kind of government support,” Blaine recalls. “Here there was nothing and all of us were wondering, ‘What do we do?’ I was lucky because my wife teaches at Discovery College, but I was experiencing depression and anxiety. There was no work, and there wasn’t going to be any for months ahead.”
Blaine spent those empty months casting about for ways to keep busy and musically sharp. Gigs or no, he took a cue from jazz musicians he admired to practice every day and be ready should the phone ring. He helped friends decorate their new club. He took a course in surveillance out of curiosity. His new health-conscious lifestyle took him on regular hikes on Dragon’s Back, the MacLehose Trail and up Sunset Peak. And yes, he dabbled in virtual concerts.
“I got sick of it. The thing I enjoy about playing live is the transfer. You put energy out and you get energy back. You put your horn down and walk to the bar and someone comes up and asks what the last song was, or says ‘Great solo’. It’s immediate and you don’t get that on a livestream. That said it was good experience for the boys when they did one.”

Those boys being 16-year-old Saxon and Jarvis, 14, who’ve followed in their father’s footsteps. Blaine picked up his love of music from his father, later honing his skills at Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University in Brisbane. Saxon and Jarvis play guitar as a duo, frequently at Hemingway’s. They rustled up over 300 viewers when they tried livestreaming.

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With the live music scene finally sparking to life again, Blaine is on something of a comeback trail, so it’s a good thing he kept playing. After enduring the lockdown, the phone is indeed ringing again. And though he’s now watching corporate jobs evaporate along with business travel, live music isn’t dying the slow death everyone feared it might. Despite the high profile Clockenflap’s cancellation, other events are forging ahead.

Blaine was on the Hong Kong Jazz Festival bill at the end of October, and he’s found regular outlets at venues like the Jockey Club’s Adrenaline, Foxglove, Salon 10 and the new Silva Records in Wong Chuk Hang – the one he helped decorate. (Find him on Facebook for other show dates).

“I was convinced no one would want live music anymore. It’s why I was so full of anxiety,” says Blaine. “But when they lifted the restriction in early July there was such a groundswell among the general public that the two gigs I did immediately were packed. After that I was convinced people did want live music. It came from the people, not from us musicians forcing it on them. I get emotional thinking about it.”

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