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Live Reviews

Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 7-8, October 1-2, 2011

By Published: October 18, 2011
Next up on the Circle Stage was local band SIU2. This band could possibly lay claim to being the most original band of the eight days, with its thrilling fusion of Chinese traditional instruments and modern western instruments. SIU2 is led by Ng Cheuk-yin on sheng (Chinese mouth organ), keyboards and percussion, but it's an ensemble which is very much the sum of its parts. Special guest Law's piercing, bell-mouthed suona, (a reed instrument) the shimmering pipes of the sheng, Cass Lam's elegant sanxian (long necked guitar) and Jason Lau's harp-like zheng (zither) combined with Lawrence Tsui's tribal drum beat—from a western kit—and pianist Peter Fan's bold chords, and Siuming Chan's bubbling electric bass on the heady opener, "Open Door."


The episodic "Grand, Grand Victory" saw the sextet adopt varying combinations of instrument, going from trio, to quartet to sextet and creating vivid textures in the process. Suona, drums and Lam's country-ish lines set the ball rolling, to be joined in the fray by sheng and zheng as the music grew bolder. A series of animated duet exchanges followed. Even at its most forceful, there was a strong melodic content to the group sound. This current of lyricism was especially notable on the traditional-sounding intro to "Flower Party," though as each member's voice was added—including a Chinese-sounding cymbal—the cocktail became increasingly more potent, and decidedly anthemic.

Cheuk-yin's organ painted noirish streaks on "Full Moon," a fast-paced, danceable number with a rather funky sanxian motif. At the end of this number, Lam left the stage to make some adjustments to her sanxian, and the crowd was treated to a sheng solo in her absence. Its multiple pipes offer rich harmonic possibilities, and in the hands of a virtuoso like Cheuk-yin it was a joy to behold. With Lam back on stage, the band launched into "Old Drama," which alternated between climactic group expression and a dreamy, pastoral dialogue from sheng and zheng, with minimalist piano contributing to the state of reverie.

Ng Cheuk-yin

The highly melodic "Moonlight Sonata" featured piano waltzing with sheng, and then sheng in turn with sanxian. Lam—a subtle colorist for the most part—took a lovely solo. The encore, "Goodbye Waltz," slowed things down a little, though there was a Zappa-esque complexity in the ensemble's unison playing on the melody. The character of SIU2 is very much the product of Hong Kong; rooted in ancient tradition, yet utterly urbane, dynamic and sophisticated. Its music would make the perfect soundtrack to a gangster movie-cum-love-story set in this storied city.

After the concert, pianist Fan observed ruefully: "I'm a classically trained pianist; how did I get here?" Watching SIU2 perform, there was a sense that the musicians delighted in the original musical space they inhabit, because, as Fan's rhetorical question suggests, what was a constantly surprising, edifying journey for the audience, was perhaps so even for the musicians themselves.

Swiss trio Rusconi's disregard for musical convention has been a breath of fresh air since its debut, Scenes and Scenarios (Sony, 2004). Pianist Stefan Rusconi, double bassist Fabian Gisler and drummer Claudio Struby draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources, ranging from jazz to rock and pop. They produce music which is melodic, rhythmically dynamic and above all exciting. Although there were a couple of numbers from It's a Sonic Life (Sony Music, 2010)—the trio's interpretations of songs of legendary New York indie rock group Sonic Youth—Rusconi is already looking forward, and presented new material scheduled for a winter release.


The concert began with a tumultuous assault on the piano keys, with Rusconi looking more like a drummer as he pounded out block chords intermingled with runs of breathtaking speed. The trio settled into a more relaxed groove on Sonic Youth's "Sunday," with Gisler stating the lovely melody as Rusconi added melodic embellishment. Prepared piano, with a series of pegs damping the strings, and an electronically distorted bowed bass, lent a dreamy air to new composition "Alice in the Sky," a melodically simple, yet brooding number. Rusconi removed the pegs from the piano strings one by one, as though pulling the plugs on the song itself, as it wound gradually down.

"Berlin Blues" featured a slightly warped Bo Diddley-type riff, a strong melodic core and vocal harmonies. Rusconi maintained a left-hand ostinato as his right improvised at both ends of the keys on a short but punchy new composition. The trio was joined by experimental Chinese jazz singer Coco Zhao, whose beat-style poetry and electronically processed voice lay at the core of a power- pop song, driven by Struby's lively drumming.

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