Alec Haavik Friction Guzheng: Fusion With A Chinese Flair

Jenn Chan Lyman By

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Alec Haavik
JZ Club
December, 3rd, 2009

In an interview a few months ago, local Shanghai sax machine Alec Haavik mentioned his desire to include more Chinese elements into his band, Friction Seven, which plays regularly at JZ Club on Thursday nights. On Thursday, December 3rd, JZ was abuzz with tons of people anticipating Alec Haavik Friction Guzheng, a union of Chinese traditional guzheng with Haavik-style jazz fusion. The set list included songs that Haavik has written for his jazz rock opera in development, "Step Into The Red Ball," as well as unique covers of tunes such as John Coltrane's "Equinox" and Led Zeppelin's "Four Sticks." The special guzheng guest was Kuriko, a local performer who's been involved in many cross-cultural projects in the past. Friction Seven was Haavik on tenor/soprano saxophone, Theo Croker on trumpet, Erica Li on vocals, Steinar Nickelsen on keyboards, Tinho Pereira on bass, and Leonardo Susi on percussion.

The seed for this collaboration was sown in July 2009, when Haavik and Kuriko met during a jam session with Indian sarod (lute) player Debojyoti Bose. Haavik recalled, "The guzheng really inspired me because when I heard Kuriko play, I felt a kinship with her as she was directly accessing the nitty gritty Stratocaster blues guitar sound and developing new creative ways to play her instrument."

The first song played was a Haavik original, "Disappear." Li lead on vocals, backed by the voices of the two horns. As the arrangement built, the three voices were joined by the rhythm section's reinforcement of the song's motif. This was not a typical jazz gig. The ensemble painted a set, situating the audience in the far-out world of Alec's colorful imagination. Susi the percussionist (the Mad Magician I wrote about last April) had an extensive kit of soundmakers with him and a Brazilian cajon in place of a kick drum. He added to the dreamlike environment: a water droplet here, a shimmering frog there. The second song began with a round, energetic sound that was slightly more "generic" than the first song, but Li's scatting cut in with the off-kilter vibe characteristic of Haavik's work.

With a natural command of the saxophone, Haavik fluctuated between bounce and slide, leading the band across the hills and plateaus of his creative landscape. At the end of the second song, he quietly introduced the theme of the evening, "Step Into the Red Ball." Li belted out lines that challenged the audience to transfer into a different reality.

Croker's trumpet oscillated across the spectrum, dark and mysterious at times and bright at others. Haavik's compositions brought out another side of his trumpet, demanding extreme sounds and riffs to challenge his dexterity. Croker commented that "[Haavik] is one of those musicians with a lot of integrity in his music. He takes the time to develop his music into how he wants it to be, and it's good. He tries new things like putting a guzheng into the band, which is out. I had to get better at the trumpet to keep playing in his band, and that's the kind of challenge I like."

Haavik welcomes the guzheng onstage and explains that the next song, the haunting "Oxytocin in the Tundra," was written for his son, Kai, born three years ago. A minute of tuning later, special guest Kuriko was ready. Pretty lady with a pretty instrument. Nickelsen's thoughtful opening was joined by a lone trumpet melody before the delicate chords of the guzheng filtered through. It was a pity that the guzheng could not be heard very well over the other instruments. The occasional reverberating note that came through made me yearn for more.

Haavik suddenly brought his hand down to the floor at the end of his solo and the whole band went dark to let the guzheng come alive. Beautiful. The strings reverberated through the room and the audience was quiet... well, as quiet as a JZ audience could be. This is what the audience was here for and they were duly rewarded. The guzheng fit in well with the rest of the band. JZ's sound engineer still had trouble working with the guzheng, but at least it was not inaudible anymore. The piano came to the fore at the close of the song, bringing a nice contrast to the texture of the guzheng. Later when asked how he felt about the line-up, Nickelsen replied, "the piano and guzheng play similar roles, so I try to make a lot of space to make sure that we support each other instead of colliding. [The guzheng] can bend notes, which the piano can't do. [The music] feels more moody and less party oriented, and in some spots the guzheng adds this traditional Chinese character, which is quite far away from the original composition."

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