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Live Reviews

Alec Haavik Friction Guzheng: Fusion With A Chinese Flair

By Published: December 20, 2009
Next, Kuriko graced us with a guzheng solo. For those not familiar with the guzheng (aka Chinese zither, with movable bridges and typically 21 strings), it has a similar haunting sound as its cousin, the guqin, featured in many Chinese movies (e.g. the brilliant fight scene in Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002), when two swordsmen battle each other in a courtyard as an old bearded gentleman plays the guqin in the background). The guzheng is one of the most soulful instruments to be heard. There's a haunting, pluck-at-my-heart-strings quality to a guzheng that is not replicated in other Western instruments, except maybe the cello and flamenco guitar, but only when played "just right."

It was amazing how the guzheng blended so well with Haavik's selection. It was a treat whenever Kuriko could be heard, not to mention a trip: a guzheng playing John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
. Haavik's sax sidled up and down the dark alley that was his version of Coltrane's "Equinox," while Susi's sleighbells shimmied alongside him. Haavik especially chose "Equinox" since he found that the tone and pitch of the guzheng fit well with the minor blues song form. Haavik explained, "including the guzheng in the band line-up [was] one of the biggest challenges because [it] is so different [than the other instruments]. It plays only one scale at a time, while one of the hallmarks of my music is that it constantly changes keys. Sometimes chord progressions even change simultaneously. Finding a way to bring out the character of the guzheng was difficult, but I've found that songs based on a pentatonic five note scale, such as "Zulu Stomp" by Don Olias (part of tonight's set), work very well with the pentatonic guzheng."

Master bass-man Periera added, "When we play with the guzheng, I try to think of a more classical way to play. For this formation, there are less notes and more space. Musically, it could be one bass note for two bars, rather than sixteen. The sound is more acoustic, more natural. [The rest of the band] has to think more because [the guzheng] cannot change keys too much. We have to take care that the beat and the notes are easy for [Kuriko] to understand, since the instrument is not normally for this kind of music. But it makes it very interesting."

Next, Haavik kicked off a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Four Sticks" with a moving soprano sax solo. They played the song in B minor to accommodate the guzheng. I'm guessing this was the first time a Led Zeppelin song was covered by a guzheng. Nickelsen's keyboard had more of a chance to shine in this cover, taking us on a long psychedelic romp, while Susi kept the beat with a foot-pedalled cowbell of sorts. Susi enjoyed playing alongside the guzheng, describing it as "a good experience for [the band] as [the guzheng] brings a different sound and atmosphere to [Haavik's] songs." The guzheng followed the piano with her own version of psychedelic. I could swear she had an effects pedal the way the instrument sounded, but nope, it was au naturel. Li hopped on stage for a Haavik original, "Empty Pages." The guzheng solo had a more traditional Chinese bent. Interestingly, the guzheng was also a good match for the soft edge of Li's voice, compared to the electric guitar that usually plays with the ensemble.

I caught up with Kuriko during the break for a quick interview (translated from Mandarin):

AAJ: What is the main challenge when you're playing with Friction Seven?

Kuriko: The biggest challenge is that it is very difficult to catch the key. Guzheng has C, G, D, and F is possible. But during a song, the guzheng cannot change keys. The other instruments can change keys but I cannot follow. When I cannot match the key, then I use a percussive technique. For this performance, Alec changed the keys of his songs to allow the guzheng to play, especially the keys for the solos.

AAJ: Have you ever played a Led Zeppelin or Coltrane song before?

K: No. I listened to Alec's rendition and played as I thought it should sound. What I played tonight was totally different from how I practiced at home, because [the band] does not play exactly like they do in the recording. I just followed my feeling. I can't even remember what I played on stage just now, but it was exhilarating. I was nervous before I began, very excited when I was on stage, and now that I am off stage I have already forgotten what was played.

AAJ: Have you played jazz before? How do you like it?

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Download jazz mp3 “Cruise Control ” by Alec Haavik