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."

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. 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?

K: This is the first time I played jazz. Before this performance I did not have much exposure to jazz, but for the performance, I listened to a lot of jazz. This music makes me sway and is completely different from what I played before. Previously, I've played experimental music. I have a girl rock band in which I play guitar (indiepop, dreampop, and a Radiohead vibe), and of course Chinese traditional, which is the required curriculum. My teachers would be all over me for how I played tonight (laughs). But I like it very much. I will continue to pursue jazz as a new genre. I never thought to listen to jazz before, but when I came across Alec's music, I felt that it was something I wanted to get to know. In the future, I hope to compose more music that includes guzheng in jazz.

After the performance, Haavik mentioned that his favorite moment was in "Exotic Wall Burger." He explained why:"Because Kuriko suggested a new scale to use for the improvisation that really captured the mood of the song and gave us a nice domain to play in. There was a lot of timidity on everyone's part but it was the one moment when the guzheng and sax blended together perfectly and melded into one voice." He added that he is looking forward to incorporating guzheng and other Chinese instruments into his work, especially within the jazz rock opera that he's currently working on for 2010.

Haavik pushed the envelope tonight: not only with his sax, but with Alec Haavik Friction Guzheng's arrangements, inviting an eclectic mix of instruments to extend beyond what ears normally hear. The audience seemed to really dig it, which is good because audiences want to see more nights like this in the future— original tunes with an edge.
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