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.