Sizhukong: Paper Eagle (2009)
Jazz's first century has thrown up few examples of Chinese folk music which has found new voice in this idiom. Buck Clayton, in collaboration with Li Jinhui, spent two years in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, adapting Chinese folk music to ballroom jazz, but nothing was recorded. Jazz's second century should see a change in this situation, and leading the way is Taiwanese group Sizhukong, whose second CD is a stunning advertisement for the possibilities of Chinese folk music merged with jazz.
Led by pianist/composer/musical director Yuwen Peng, Sizhukong combines a western-style rhythm section with traditional Chinese instruments and brews a colorful fusion; essentially Chinese sounding, yet indisputably jazz. If jazz is defined as an approach to music then Sizhukong is as jazz as Weather Report or Tito Puente, and elements of these diverse groups can be heard in the original arrangements.
Sizhukong is perhaps indirectly helping preserve fading Chinese musical traditions as much as it is looking to cross musical frontiers. "I Remember Formosa," for example, is inspired by a third century song called "The Mad Drinker" and features Chihping Huang's dizi (flute) gliding and larking like a bird riding the air currents. Peng's lovely piano solo gives way to Chihling Chen's trilling ruan (Chinese mandolin) and Japanese drummer Toshi Fujii's crashing cymbals, providing a brief but dramatic interlude in a beautiful tune.
Nature provides inspiration for much of Sizhukong's music, and the evocative lyricism of the arrangements, combined with Peng's elegant touch on the piano, is suggestive of Duke Ellington.
Like Ellington, Peng takes inspiration where she finds it, and the title track has a dancing Latin flavor reminiscent of Fania All Stars, with driving bongos and congas and Huang's alegre flute. Chen's ruan and Wu's erhu (two-stringed fiddle) evoke the swing and light-hearted blues of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
The exotic "Marketplace" features South African Mogauwane Mahoelo on mbira (thumb piano) and djembe. This enchanting song has a dramatic passage in which flute flies over punchy percussive punctuation. Mahoelo also imports an African soul to "Hakka Mountain Song ," supplying vocals, talking drum and berimbeu. In his native language, he asks: "Do I surpass myself or surpass others?" Peng's stirring innovations on piano give wings to the song.
The dreamlike quality of "Drifting," and the buoyancy of "Deer Harbour"two contrasting tunes written or co-written by Belgian bassist Martijn Vanbuelcontain the sadness, hopes and excitement of the early immigrants abandoning home for Taiwan, the former featuring the lovely, harp-like zheng.
The percussive interlude on the uplifting "Rainbow Dress Rhapsody" is exhilarating, with cymbals crashing together as in a Chinese New Year dragon dance and a delightful bluegrass flavor provided by Chengzheng Liang's three-stringed sanxian. By contrast, a slow, almost tango-ish noir colors the Herbie Hancock-inspired "Mysterious Voyage."
Like the kite referenced in the title, this is music which soars to great heights, dancing gracefully and joyously. In short, mesmerizing.
Track Listing: I Remember Formosa; Paper Eagle; Drifting, part 1; Deer Harbour; Marketplace; Remembering; Hakka Mountain Song; Rainbow Dress Symphony; Mysterious Voyage; Drifting, part 2.
Personnel: Yuwen Peng: composition; piano; keyboards; Alex Wu: erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle); tuogu (Chinese cymbals and drums); percussion; Toshi Fujii: drums; percussion; electric bass; Chihling Chen: ruan (Chinese lute); liuquin (Chinese mandolin); Chihping Huang: xiao (Chinese recorder); dizi (Chinese flute); Martijn Vanbuel: composition; double bass; Mogauwane Mahoelo: mbira (thumb piano), djembe, shaker (5) ; voice, talking drums, berimbeu (7); Fangyu Weng: zheng (Chinese harp) (3); Chengzheng Liang: sanxian (Chinese shamisen) (8).