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Live From New York

Meredith Monk, Richard Thompson, Wu Man and Bonerama

By Published: November 12, 2009
The pipa player Wu Man has taken a major role in Carnegie Hall's timely Ancient Paths, Modern Voices season celebrating Chinese culture. As its title suggests, the scope is wide enough to present ancient traditional approaches side-by-side with modern works. Near the beginning of the series, Wu Man presented Taste Of China, which was designed to give its audience a sampling of some perhaps unfamiliar styles. This was the first of two showcases where she personally oversaw the artist selection. Wu Man has been living in the USA for around two decades now, so her recent film-making journey to rural north-west China was probably a fairly alien experience, even for her.

It's a shame that she limited her own playing-time so much, but Wu doubtless felt that her guests needed to be prioritized. She didn't have to search too deeply for qin player Zhao Jiazhen, as the pair had studied together at Beijing's Central Conservatory as young girls. It was the other two groups who presented a less familiar form: the Dong Female Singing Group (who broke the usual local rules by featuring two male vocalists) and the Ba Da Chui percussion quartet. Both of these ensembles play music that's an intrinsic part of daily community life.

The pipa and the qin are not totally dissimilar in the ancient timbral zones that they inhabit. Variations on lute and zither constructions, respectively, they both glory in silvery cascades and sharply struck punctuations, metallically ringing yet gracefully adorned with subtle flourishes. Usually, the qin is considered to be a solo instrument, but Wu Man briefly joined Zhao Jiazhen. The latter, of course, also gave a concentrated solo display that formed an attractive contrast with the far more boisterous vocal and percussion groups. Her technique involved an extremely sensitive string-bending, making often unpredictable flurries, flirting with near-silence before issuing a dense fluttering.

The Dong group, from the mountainous southern region of Guizhou, set out to re-enact scenes from village life. It's something akin to a musical soap opera, with the honorary male members allowing wider dramatic potential, as their high cries overlap, building up criss-crossing patterns.

The Ba Da Chui percussion quartet reside in Beijing, but use the rhythms of Peking opera as their starting point. They relish the extreme treble areas of a sharply struck gong-cymbal, or a hard-thwacked tiny hand-drum. Disciplined patterns tend to set up a layered ringing pattern of interlaced parts, often accelerating into a maddened rate. Then they'd introduce a larger bass barrel-drum, to heighten the intensity. Towards the climax of the evening's second half, Wu joined the team, and just about managed to match their speedy intricacies by sticking to an underlining tattoo with her medium-sized drum. Following the introductory screening of Wu's documentary, Discovering A Musical Heartland, as well as an intermission, the evening took on an extended quality, but this was a worthwhile trial once the resultant musical diversity took its hold.


Sullivan Hall

October 23, 2009

When even a gig's supporting act features former Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassman Melvin Gibbs, we can be sure that the entire night is set to be something of a deep throbber. The SocialLybrium band also has Blackbyrd McKnight on guitar (himself a part of George Clinton's extended Parliament family) and J.T. Lewis on drums, and their mission is to funk, mostly instrumentally, but also with Worrell taking the fractured rap-narrative vocals on several numbers. McKnight handled most of the guitar solos, but Gibbs impressed with his climactic fuzz-bass grandstand, pouring out scuzzed abstract formations, seething with maximum overdrive.

SocialLybrium were the special guests of Bonerama, who had been playing a Friday residency at Sullivan Hall throughout October. As the name hints, this New Orleans combo revolves around a multi-trombone front line. It's usually four-strong, but for this night they were cut down to three. Before too long, though, they had two more 'boners on stage, Tyler Ginsberg and Robin Eubanks, the latter pretty much staying onstage for the duration. Eubanks appeared slightly distraught at the extreme volume of the 'rama onslaught, but after inserting some makeshift earplugs he was firing off the ensemble riffs, waiting for a phrase or two to latch onto the structure, then joining in with the springbok crunching. Besides the added 'bones, there was a veritable procession of guesting keyboardists and guitarists, lending a final-night party feeling.

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