Lucid Culture


Stephanie Chou’s Chinese Jazz Shifts the Paradigm at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center booked Stephanie Chou and her quartet to celebrate International Women’s Day. They couldn’t have made a more imaginative choice. Chou is a strong singer with an unadorned mezzo-soprano, a strong saxophonist and a brilliantly individualistic composer who’s shifting the paradigm, blending Chinese themes from over the centuries with jazz, classical and more than a little rock in places. Her show last night drew heavily from her latest, innovative album, Asymptote. Her music is relevant, and lyrical, and amazingly eclectic, typical of the programming here lately.

The concert began with Isamu McGregor’s pointillistic, twinkling upper-register piano, joined by Andy Lin’s stark erhu fiddle. Then in a split second he picked up his viola and plucked out a spiky pizzicato riff before returning to the erhu as In the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a new version of the famous 1970s Teresa Teng Chinese pop hit, picked up steam.

Chou picked up her alto sax for General’s Command, reinventing an old Fujianese zither song as hard-hitting, kinetic postbop with more than a hint of gospel, Lin’s violin adding shivery ambience behind Chou’s calm, resolute melody.

“We’re gonna switch gears a little bit,” the college math major and bandleader explained, introducing the lustrous title cut from the new album. “The more you look the less you really see,” she sang: the enveloping, enigmatic sweep of the sax, viola, piano and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza’s muted mallets on the toms dovetailed with the philosophical paradox it alludes to, two lines converging infinitely but never reaching the same point.

Quiet Night Thought – a tropically-tinged setting of a Li Bai poem – followed a similarly lush, distantly brooding nocturnal tangent, Chou singing in Chinese. Then they switched gears again: Lin’ s solo version of an old folk song about birds flutttered, and chirped ,and soared, but with a fluidity that would make any feathered friend jealous.

Chou illustrated Odysseus’ arduous journey home to his true love with Penelope, a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo. It would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago.

Chou returned to Chinese with her vocals in Making Tofu – inspired by a funny proverb about an only slightly less arduous process – a moody jazz waltz with a gorgeous, sternly crescendoing meteor shower of a piano solo and ominously modal sax work. Who knew so much energy was required to make those innocuous little cubes!

She led the crowd in a Chinese tongue-twister – the gist of it was, “If you eat grapes you spit out the peel, if you don’t eat grapes then you don’t” – then scatted it as Sperrazza rattled his toms and woodblock. She got serious again with the somberly verdant, astringently crescendoing tonalities of In the Forest, inspired by Johann Stolting, a 19th scientist turned hermit and something of a tragic character in her Irvington, New York hometown

Chou’s latest project explores the struggles of the women forced into prostitution by the Japanese in World War II. The world premiere of Manchurian Girl, a reworking of a 1938 Chinese pop song, had a sardonic martial beat: the longing and disillusion in Chou’s voice was visceral and transcended any linguistic limitations. She followed with a dramatic ballad, McGregor’s lingering glitter contrasting with Lin’s insistent attack and closed with a brief tone poem of sorts, part Debussy and part stately Chinese folk.

The next jazz show at Lincoln Center the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is an especially amazing one, with ageless latin jazz piano icon Eddie Palmieri and his band on March 16 at 7:30 PM The show is free so get there early or else.


March 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

January 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jen Shyu Debuts Her Spellbinding, Relevant New Suite at Roulette

Ultimately, Jen Shyu‘s mission is to break down cultural barriers and unite people. In her own work, the singer/multi-instrumentalist has assimilated an astonishing number of styles, both from her heritage – Taiwan and East Timor – as well as from Korea, Indonesia, China and the United States, among other places around the world. Last night at Roulette she celebrated her birthday by unveiling a bracingly dynamic, otherworldly surrealistic, envelopingly beautiful new suite, Song of Silver Geese, a characteristically multilingual work combining the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opened with a series of judicious plucks on her Korean gayageum lute, then switched to piano, Taiwanese moon lute and eventually a small Indonesian gong. Throughout the roughly hourlong piece, dancer Satoshi Haga struck dramatic poses when he wasn’t moving furtively or tiptoeing in the background when the music reached a lull.

The storyline, according to the program notes, involves the interaction between two characters from Timorese and Korean folklore, both known for their disguises, in addition to an iconic Taiwanese freedom fighter and a Javanese schoolgirl who was tragically orphaned at age six in a car accident.

Spare exchanges between the strings and the gayageum grew to an uneasy lustre evocative of 80s serialism, Cellist Mariel Roberts’ wounded, ambered lines eventually giving way to sinister microtones from Maneri. Shyu’s switch to the moon lute signaled a long upward climb through a dreamlike sequence punctuated by Weiss’ increasingly agitated rumble and the flutter of the strings, texturally ravishing yet troubled.

Shyu’s uncluttered vocals were just as dynamic, ranging from a whisper, to an imploring, angst-fueled Carol Lipnik-like delivery, to an insistent, earthy, shamanistic growl and pretty much everywhere in between. The big coda, seemingly meant to illustrate the fatal crash, built to a pandemonium that came as a real shock in view of the lustre and glistening atmospherics that had been lingering up to that point.

The performance ended with the ensemble members performing a candle ceremony of sorts and then walking out through the audience as Shyu sang a mantra: “I am alone, but not lonely; Life has no boundaries when every place can be home.” Something for everybody in the audience to take home.

Shyu’s next performance features another premiere,of a dance piece at 7 PM on April 21 at the Czech Center, 321 E 73rd St. Those who were lucky enough to catch this performance would probably also enjoy the concert of rare, delicately haunting folk music from Amami Island, Japan, played by Anna Sato and Shogo Yashi at Roulette on May 14 at 8. Tix are $25/$21 stud/srs.

March 29, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Surreal, Paradigm-Shifting Night of Music and Film at the Asia Society

On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities

The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.

The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.

The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.

January 14, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Film, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Majestic, Transcendent Carnegie Hall Concert by the China National Traditional Orchestra

Prosaically speaking, the China National Traditional Orchestra play both old folk themes and new works on traditional instruments, using western-style symphonic arrangements. Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, the mighty, majestic group performed a riveting, dynamically rich program of both ancient and contemporary music that was as vast and historically rich as China itself, a paradigm-shifting and potentially life-changing experience. This was not safe, self-congratulatory, doctrinaire state-sponsored music. It was as avant garde as anything staged in this city this year…yet pretty much everybody in the house knew the source material, and by the final sprint through a blustery coda, the majority of the crowd was clapping or singing along.

While this group’s setup is modeled on the typical European symphony orchestra, the timbres are uniquely Chinese, subtly spiced with overtones and microtones that don’t typically exist in the western classical canon. The choice of instrumentation alone creates a brand-new genre, considering that traditional Chinese ensembles tend to be smaller and more focused on either strings or winds. In place of oboes and clarinets, this group substitutes the high midrange suona, along with bamboo alto flutes and a series of shengs, giant counterparts to the harmonica. In place of cellos, the magical, overtone-generationg low-midrange erhu, but also a section of Chinese zhongruan guitars. Other plucked textures, from harp, pipa lute and yangqin zither added alternately delicate and spikily sizzling sounds that grounded the music in centuries of tradition. In the back, in place of timpani, an entire row of big bass drums and gongs which on occasion were employed to deliver torrentially roaring washes unheard of in the most explosive western symphonic music.

Several works by the ensemble’s visionary composer-in-residence, Jiang Ying, took centerstage. The most stunning, slinky, suspenseful one was the opening mini-suite, Silk Road, which set the stage for much of the rest of the concert as it built suspense from a hushed conversation between Wu Yuxia’s pipa and Wang Ciheng’s xiao flute. With titanic swells and dips, a graceful pipa solo and constantly shapeshifting variations on a swaying caravan pace awash in edgy Middle Eastern-tinged tonalities, it was the most cinematic of all the material on the bill.

Ying’s Impressions Suite was hilarious. From one of the second-tier boxes close to the stage, a lively birdcall began to warble, answered from the center section, and then the whole venue came alive with the chattering of flutes. We had been infiltrated by flutists! Suddenly the forest was flickering with what seemed to be hundreds of species, in a constantly mutating stereo swirl! Conductor Liu Sha spun and beamed and tackled the daunting task of keeping the flock together with seamless aplomb.

The second half of the program began with a bellicose, wildly atonal, chord-chopping pipa duel between Zhao Cong and Yu Yuanchun, augmented by similarly kinetic percussion: it was the most improvisational and challenging piece of the night. An ancient fishing boat song brought to mind a blustery if successful days’ worth of hauling in a catch, fueled by Wu Lin’s graceful, balletesque harp. Hua Yanjun’s The Moon Reflected on the Spring for erhu and orchestra, as its title would imply, contrasted stark, stately strings against a balmy, plushly nocturnal backdrop.

Zhongruan player Feng Mantian seized the role of frontman and lead guitarist on Ying’s arrangement of the traditional Rhapsody of Xintianyou, sort of a Chinese counterpart to a Richard Thompson Britfolk anthem. The program closed with a soaring, ecstatically galloping take of the 1939 Xian Xinghai suite Yellow River, a defiant narrative of Chinese resistance and triumph over the brutal Japanese invasion. For the encores, the orchestra went into similarly rousing, stampeding Mongolian folk territory, leaving the audience breathles and on their feet. It’s too bad that there weren’t more non-Chinese speakers in the crowd: this music embraces tonalities far beyond traditional Asian scales and would resonate with just about any global audience, if only they could hear it.

December 24, 2015 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philip Glass Curates a Deliciously Eclectic Benefit Concert at the Town Hall

Thursday night at the Town Hall featured a global cast of talent assembled by Philip Glass for a benefit concert for the Garrison Institute, a Westchester County nonprofit think tank. As befits an organization housed in a former monastery space, the music had a mystical quality, no surprise considering Glass’ involvement. Early music choir Pomerium opened the evening with a garden of unearthly delights, conductor  Alexander Blachly immediately setting the tone with Gesualdo’s haunting, strikingly ominous O Vox Omnes (whose Biblical lyrics, from the Book of Lamentations, have Jesus asking passersby how their pain might compare with his). From there the ensemble lightened somewhat and went deeper into hypnotically meticulous polyphony from Talls, Desprez and Lassus. This expertly lush, velvet-toned group is at Corpus Christi Church, 529 W 121st St., at 4 PM on Oct 27 if Renaissance choral treasures are your thing.

The most tantalizing piece of the night was a brand-new Glass composition which the composer played as a duet with pipa innovator Wu Man, his murky resonance contrasting with her Chinese lute’s airy, acerbic, ghostly overtones. She also played a suspenseful, slowly rising improvisation on a Chinese folk song as well as Glass’ 2004 chamber work, Orion, teaming with the Scorchio Quartet (violinists Amy Kimball and Rachel Golub, violist Martha Mooke and cellist Leah Coloff) for an eclectic and biting journey through its alternately Indian and Middle Eastern passages. The quartet also joined with pianist Nelson Padgett and baritone Gregory Purnhagen for another New York premiere, Glass’ Songs of Milarepa, whose exquisitely meta-Glass music – nuevo baroque mingled with hauntingly minimalist, Dracula-esque arpeggiation and echoes of a couple of Glass string quartet themes – far surpassed the prosaic translations of doctrinaire Buddhist lyrics written by an eleventh-century Tibetan monk.

Longtime Glass collaborator Foday Musa Suso, the Gambian-born griot, opened the second half of the show solo on kora harp, maintaining a balance between hypnotic and spikily insistent, a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation. Turkish virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek followed and was arguably the high point of the show, with a slinky, crescendoing, all-too-brief set with his son Murat on frame drum. The father began with a long, enigmatically searching taqsim (improvisation) on flute while hitting the occasional rhythmic chord on baglama lute. Then he picked up the lute and delivered a slowly crescendoing, impassioned, microtonally-charged setting of a rather epic Rumi poem. Austin, Texas-based Riyaaz Qawwali brought the energy level up to redline, ending the night with a joyously undulating, percussive homage to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

October 26, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting to Know Wu Man

Wu Man is one of the world’s leading advocates and virtuosos of the pipa, the spiky, ancient Chinese lute which has enjoyed a renaissance over the last fifty years. Last night at Symphony Space presented an opportunity to get to know her a little and hear a little music as well. She hails from the city of Hangzhou, where she was born into a family of traditional music fans who encouraged her to pursue her passion: as she told it, by the time she was eleven, she’d envisioned a professional life as a pipa player. In a coolly melodious voice, she took her time contemplating the challenges and rewards of someone playing an instrument and a repertoire that are both vastly different from what they were a thousand or even two thousand years ago when Iranian traders first introduced an early version of the tar lute to China.

As one would expect from such a fiery, technically skilled player, Wu Man is a gearhead. She took care to emphasize how the instrument – once limited to the range commonly employed by the viola or even the cello – expanded upwards, particularly since the 1930s, along with its repertoire. She’s very particular about craftsmanship: her pipa has ivory – recycled, she took care to note – on the lower frets and bamboo in the upper regions. Depending on the repertoire and the tuning involved (as with the guitar, there’ve been plenty of pipa tunings over the centuries), she’ll vary her choice of strings. This time out, she was using nylon, rather than steel or gut, to match the downstairs theatre’s intimate sonics.

Though she’s an expat, politics weren’t discussed – although she did admit to being hassled by Chinese cops while trying to film her recent crowd-funded half-hour documentary, Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, which explores a handful of the nation’s rapidly vanishing folk styles. Looking back, there’s no doubt that like many conservatory students throughout the world, she felt cloistered: her recent immersion in ancient folk traditions seems to be an attempt to make up for lost time. That theme comes to the forefront on her most recent album, the starkly beautiful, eclectic Borderlands, released earlier this year by Traditional Crossroads.

Much as it was interesting to hear her perspective, Wu Man speaks more eloquently through her instrument than any words could possibly express. She played about half a dozen short pieces, the highlight being a trio of Ukrainian and Chinese folk songs where she duetted with Ukrainian bandura lute virtuoso Julian Kytasty. As Ukrainian or Russian speakers would quickly realize, Kytasty comes from a family with roots in the China trade, and he is cognizant of them, explaining that these days he “looks to the east” for inspiration. The two hadn’t played together in at least a couple of years (he’s a big part of her hit album Wu Man and Friends), so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts and it wasn’t long before sparks were flying, particularly on an old Ukrainian tribute to a fallen warrior that wound gracefully from a stately, resonant elegy to a volcanic ending driven by Wu Man’s feral tremolo-picking. A bit later on, solo, she also played a traditional dance that was her (successful) audition piece for the conservatory, a jaunty number that can be heard throughout many subway stations in lower Manhattan, played by a new generation of musicians who no doubt look to emulate her achievements.

This particular mix of meet-and-greet and concert was assembled under the auspices of the World Music Institute, who’ve been staging memorable concerts from a global cast of characters here for literally decades.

December 8, 2012 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Moving Sound Puts Their Original Spin on Ancient Chinese Music

Taiwanese group A Moving Sound’s music is not deferential or folkloric, at least in the sense that it tries to fossilize a traditional musical style for the same of mass appeal, or for yuppie cultural tourists who assuage their bourgeois guilt by proving to the world how multicultural they are. It’s cutting-edge, entertaining stuff that just happens to be played on instruments that go back several hundred years, using ancient Chinese folk tunes as a springboard for original songs and arrangements that draw on influences as diverse as indie classical and worldbeat. The songs’ lyrics are in native dialects. Frontwoman/singer/dancer Mia Hsieh’s heritage is mainland Chinese: her parents fled the terror of Mao to Taiwan, only to end up under Chiang Kai-Shek’s iron thumb. Hsieh won a Fulbright scholarship, studied with Meredith Monk and then returned home, bringing along multi-instrumentalist Scott Prairie, with whom she founded the group. The members also include Zheng-jun Wu on percussion and erhu (spike fiddle), Tang-hsuan Lo on erhu, Hua-zhou Hsieh on guitar and zhong ruan (four-string lute) along with guest sitarist Yi-chen Chang on one track.

The microtonal erhu adds an acidic bite to many of the songs, notably on the stately, processional opening suite, Silk Road – it’s hard to to tell where the erhu leaves off and Hsieh’s voice takes over, such is the clarity of both the vocals and Lo’s playing here. An instrumental, The First Thunder of Spring takes a graceful walk down the Asian scale and turns it into dramatic, ominous acoustic art-rock with an absolutely wicked chorus. The slowly slinky, joyously minimalist Harvest is followed by The Market Song, sort of like a Taiwanese Pogues tune, memorializing Hsieh’s parents’ hectic days as open-air vendors. At a semi-private mini-concert for bloggers and such earlier today, Hsieh lit into this one with a cheery, animated grace; as a singer, she switched confidently between hushed nuance and the stratospherically high leaps that give away her avant garde background.

Gu Gin, based on an 11th century poem, drolly celebrates playing in the rain, while Flying Dombra moves slowly and deliberately with Prairie’s spaciously placed bass chords. Dynasty has an upbeat, jangly folk-rock feel, nicking an old Allman Brothers lick at one point, followed by Toh Deh Gong, which contrasts Hsieh’s irrepressible vocal swoops and dives with stern, austerely percussive melodies. The album ends with the bouncy Howling Wind and then the aptly titled Ghost Lake, an ancient traditional song reinvented as a long, hypnotic tone poem with a trick ending. It’s out now on Motema; a Moving Sound plays Drom this Friday, Sept 23 at 9:30 PM. $12 advance tickets are still available as of today.

By the way, just in case it’s crossed your mind lately, this music is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the world stands to lose in the wake of Fukushima (Taiwan got hammered by the tailwind from 3/11). Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it time we got rid of nuclear power forever?

September 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Hsu-nami at the Passport to Taiwan Festival, Union Square, NYC 5/24/09

At times it seemed as if the Hsu-Nami were deliberately trying to injure themselves, ripping through a brief, barely forty-minute but physically exhausting set of artsy, spectacularly intelligent, virtuosic heavy metal instrumentals blending blinding blues, ornate Iron Maiden inflections and traditional Chinese melodies played by the band’s sensational frontman Jack Hsu on an amplified erhu (the traditional Chinese violin). Hsu didn’t let the the hundred-degree heat and crushing humidity phase him, flailing and throwing himself across the terrace at the park’s southwest corner as if possessed by demons. He didn’t even take off his vest. Hsu frequently transposes lead guitar voicings to his instrument, showing off a dizzyingly virtuosic command of an army of stylistic devices: slides, bent notes, lightning-fast 32nd-note clusters, blues runs, classical motifs and of course his signature permutations of the traditional Chinese scale. Guitarist Brent Bergholm’s pedalboard wasn’t working, so he went straight through his amp with tons of natural distortion. Tony Aichele, on the other side of what would have been the stage if there’d been one there, added a similarly ferocious blend of lead guitar precision and recklessness. Too bad the keyboardist was so low in the mix – but sometimes that’s what you get at an outdoor show. At the very least the band drowned out the nasty alarms undoubtedly blasting in the distance every time an M9 bus would open its doors, a couple of blocks away; at best, even taking into account the makeshift acoustics on what was by far the nastiest day of the year, this was one of 2009’s best NYC shows so far.

They opened with an especially aggressive version of Snake Skin Shuffle, featuring a ferocious bluesy solo by Bergholm. The next song segued from a predictably amusing, sarcastically metalized version of the Godfather Theme, Hsu mocking the melody against stately piano, then morphing into what sounded like Iron Maiden playing a dramatic Chinese opera theme lit up by a twin solo by the two guitarists. The title track from their new cd 4 Noble Truths began slow, deliberate, and soulful, building to a galloping stomp with Aichele and Hsu playfully doubling each others’ lightning-fast lines, then an interlude with keys that wouldn’t have been out of place on an early Genesis record. The most intense song of the show was the intially eerie, ominous Entering the Mandala, Hsu blasting through two twin solos –  one with each guitarist – as the suite reached whirlwind proportions. While what this band plays, for lack of a better word, is metal, they stay away from cliches, on this one finally giving into temptation and ending it with a deliciously flailing, crashing outro that could have gone on for twice as long as it did and the crowd would have loved it just as much. They closed the set with a new song, the strikingly pretty, pastoral triptych Passport to Taiwan, dedicating it to the festival where they’ve played for three years straight now, Bergholm adding some artful southern rock touches that actually managed to work. If you miss the days of aggressive, loud bands that don’t have the slightest resemblance to Pearl Jam or Nickelback, you ought to check these guys out. The Hsu-Nami are like Chinese hot sauce – no matter how intense it gets, you still keep wanting more and more.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wild Adventures in Pipaland

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the great musical adventurers of our time. The Chinese expat pipa player/singer has opened for Bjork at the Garden and played a solo set of Thelonious Monk arranged for pipa at Carnegie Hall. Her instrument is a Chinese lute whose name derives from the sounds the strings make when hit with up or down strokes, either “pi” or “pa.” Accomplished in a vast variety of styles including traditional Chinese, jazz and western classical music, she clearly delights in blending these styles together to create a sound that is uniquely her own. With her literally panstylistic group the Blue Pipa Trio, featuring Steve Salerno on electric guitar and Dean Johnson on upright bass, she played a set that was as exciting as it was challenging and sometimes absolutely baffling to the older, lunchtime crowd gathered at Trinity Church this afternoon.

The group opened with a rearrangement of a traditional Chinese instrumental, Salerno impressing with a soulful, bluesy solo toward the end. The next piece, Dancing with the Moon, an attractively nocturnal, traditional number saw Johnson playing some amazing, Stanley Clarke-style fills, all swoops, dives and even high harmonics. He had the treble turned up all the way on his pickup, making every note distinct. Min and Salerno played graceful cascades against each other, sometimes changing up the rhythm and playing against the beat.

Min then put down her pipa and sang what she termed “an early Chinese pop song,” possibly titled The Sweetness of Flowers at Night. Johnson played what was essentially a pipa arrangement on bass, fast staccato runs around the simple, torchy chord changes. Although the lyrics were incomprehensible to non-Chinese speakers, Min allowed an eeriness in her vocals: the song would fit perfectly in a vintage David Lynch movie.

The most difficult composition on the bill was a tongue-in-cheek number called Chinese Take-Out, a bustling, dissonant instrumental wherein Min swooped and dove, using a slide, when she wasn’t frenetically wailing on the strings, evoking the cacophony of a takeout joint at lunchtime. In the middle of the piece, a strikingly pretty, quietly contemplative bridge suddenly appeared, perhaps where the exhausted kitchen crew finally gets to relax with some tea. But then the dinner crowd descends and everything starts up again. Uh oh, heads up, here comes another huge, steaming pot, watch your backs!

She explained how her song Red Haired Boy Dancing With Golden Snake was a medley, a traditional American folksong followed by its Chinese counterpart. “All Americans know Red Haired Boy, right?” she asked quizzically, perhaps surprised at the dead silence from the audience. Nobody said a word: this wasn’t Nashville, after all. The arrangement of the first was surprisingly close to the original, and the segue into the second part was seamless.

The best songs on the program were originals. “This song was inspired by a poem from the Tang dynasty. It’s called Poem from the Tang Dynasty,” she told the crowd, and followed with a stately, thoughtful, understatedly precise number. Nanjing Monk was a stark and smashingly successful attempt to blend Thelonious Monk (at his most accessible and melodic) into traditional Chinese folk. The trio closed on a high note with Fascinating New Year, ostensibly an attempt to bring some Gershwin to the mainland. Min began it with a couple of vocal whoops, using the song to air out her voice and show off her spectacular range. Not only did she hit the high notes, she proved that she knows her blues, growling and bending notes with a dexterity that would do Eartha Kitt proud.

Perhaps not surprisingly, even though Min is a star in world music circles, the church was only about half-full. Sadly, there is a city bus stop just a few feet from the church entrance, and the screech of the alarm that sounds as the bus doors open, earsplitting outside the doors, was still painfully audible above the music on more than one occasion. The edifice dates from a more civilized time, when insulation from such sonic assaults wasn’t necessary: it’s likely that the downtown lunch crowd has become aware of this and stays away. Until there are no more alarms going off during concerts here – fat chance of that, considering that this has been a problem since 1997 – this beautiful, historic landmark, with its excellent sonics inside, cannot really serve as a viable place for music. Or anything else, during the day at least.

Min Xiao-Fen’s next show is a solo gig at the Queens Museum of Art on February 17 at 2 PM in celebration of the Chinese New Year (Year of the Rat, which is what it is every year in New York), on a bill with Ishigure Masayo on Japanese koto and Yoon Jeong Heo on Korean geomungo.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment