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Album Review

Jun Xiao: Atypical Airship

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Jun Xiao: Atypical Airship
Jazz in China may be little known, but Shanghai-based composer and guitarist Jun Xiao is no doubt among the earliest to shape the landscape. His sophomore effort Atypical Airship (Blue Note/Universal Music China, 2022) visualizes the personal astro-Arcadia, blurs genre lines and especially blends jazz dynamics with rock form, breaks limitations of his musical identity, and showcases a well-selected group of China's first-line jazz musicians. Moreover, being the first ever Chinese national to release a Blue Note album, he continues to prove himself to be a driving force of the domestic jazz scene. To the world, his statement of the jazz being played in China is right in the making. As the album title suggests, this is by no means a typical jazz album. To have jazz and perhaps a broader sense of modern music re-imagined, seems to be a vision shared by the musician and the label.

Xiao's penchant for tasteful guitar effects, kaleidoscopic sound polymerization, spacious textures and hypnotic ambience colors his music. However, this time he not only distances himself from the guitar centrality, but also attempts to befog the boundary between composition and improvisation. He is capable of grandstanding solos, as he used to do, but here he reins in any such excesses. With a talent-studded band consisting of eight other Chinese musicians and two American jazz peers (Aaron Parks, Adam O'Farrill), each track is customized with flexible settings.

The atypical journey sets out from gloomy chaos. "Drown Into Deep Down," with a sense of dark romanticism, is reminiscent of the title cut of David Bowie's Blackstar (ISO, 2016). Dong Hua, the lead singer of the post-punk band "Rebuilding the Rights of Statues," delivers his husky, stifling enunciation in the manner of a desperate eagle swooping, and lashes his blackhole-esque low pitches into undulations. In no time, all is soothed by Voision Xi's angelic backing vocal. As the air is filled with scorching, communicative polyrhythms, the opener soon evolves into a percussive feast.

Xiao is far from instrumentally egoistic; his focus here is on the arrangements, through which he achieves a cohesive and fully integrated group sound. His synthesizer writing is pure magic, creating atmospheric, wide-spectrum layers that color the music in multiple ways. And his guitar looms and fades, injecting catalyst-ish vigour into the imminent eruption. Other numbers, such as "Surfing Rock" and "Ancient AI" also generate different storytelling through his approaches to electric sounds and rock beats stirred by his jazz heritage. Here comes the question: Does this album fall into the categorization of jazz? The remaining endeavors may provide a clearer panorama only if the listener lends an ear to the latter tracks.

The inspiration of "Ain't No Sunshine Moon No Cry" is rhythmic instead of melodic. Appetized by a robotically-intonated title line consisting of only two notes, there awaits the unfathomable maze. Now, the crafty architect is about to demonstrate his songwriting prowess. The drum pattern puts geometric underpinnings into the 18/8 cube to hold its atypical structure up, where the instrumental interplay sweatily navigates through the offbeat 7+7+4 groove. Adam O'Farrills glistening trumpet solo marks a metamorphic moment of daybreak, before Aaron Parks surfaces with his calm and precise piano ripples.. Soon, along with the reappearing title line enters the guitarist's signal-note pulse. A remarkable work of decrypting the encoded.

"Digital Water" cuts straight to the chase in the first bars, where the guitarist layers his crisp pulsar-like sparks here and there above the white noise. "Somberton," featuring the individualistic singer-songwriter Leah Dou, wakes up in an ethereal reverie whose indelible melody climbs and falls like a feather. The music gets more adventurous as her elfish sleep-talk turns into soft rap, floating with the Rhodes-toned guitar which gives wings to this dreamy moment.

"Zima" is a cinematic, immersive ballad. Atypical in some way as well, it neatly engages the whole band on the first beat of its drifting theme. As the airship, fueled by rivulets of mellifluous phrases and shade-and-light nuances, orbits closer to Xiao's cosmic utopia, enchanting sonic sceneries emerge. Self-discoveries and expression refinements since his acclaimed début Triangular Prism (Sony, 2017) come along, too. In fact, this narrative original was already performed live back in January 2020 and several times afterwards, much ahead of the album taking shape. While Aaron Parks initiates his restrained solo with a cool-toned, pearl-lustered touch, Xiao's attitude towards composition and improvisation remains ambiguous. Detonated by the guitarist's blazing ascending scale, the slow-building ensemble work later crescendos into a one-minute volcanic explosion. Free at last. Yu An's expressive brushwork unfurls a soundscape that is oceanic and at times surreal, and reaches its peak in the lullaby-esque "Like Human Like Baby" that brings the voyage to an end.

Five years ago, Xiao received his master's degree from SUNY Purchase and released his début Triangular Prism. Recorded in New York, the album features Kevin Hays on piano, Rick Rosato on double bass, Alex LoRe on saxophone, and Jerad Lippi on drums. Having won the guitarist an award and a nomination back home, the album —in his words —is close to a graduate work. Five years later, Atypical Airship is taking new steps to uncharted territories.

In his tenacious pursuit of musicality, he has, in recent years, shifted the focus from harmonic sophistication to sound design. After having played the guitar for over two decades, he picked up keyboards overnight and brought home a Moog One. "I've always been fascinated by the likes of Hans Zimmer and TENET's composer Ludwig Göransson. Lately, I've been obsessed with a German TV series called 'Dark.'" To fit the predilection for powerful resonances, compositional vastness and interstellar ambience into his music, Xiao replaces gargantuan strength with exquisite sensitivity, and obtains a variety of sounds often in an interlocking approach with a less-is-more or not-too-full attitude.

"Mind outweighs technique," he repeats. Having been long acknowledged as a top jazz guitarist in China, his instrument of choice tends to take more of a back seat in his compositions these days. The pandemic —he confesses —which has left live music performance to struggle and made real-time, in-person and international performances difficult, also accelerates the process. "I no longer see myself only as a guitarist. Guitar will be added into my music only when needed. Even more so, it doesn't have to 'lead' anything."

From a performance-trained soloist to a versatile composer and arranger, Jun Xiao thoughtfully states, "we will always need that Zero Courage." Truly, Atypical Airship witnesses just that.

Track Listing

Drown Into Deep Down; Ain't No Sunshine Moon No Cry; Digital Water; Surfing Rock; Somberton; Ancient AI; Cosmic Arpeggio (Interlude); Sleepwalk; Zima; Like Human Like Baby.

Personnel

Jun Xiao: guitar.

Additional Instrumentation

Jun Xiao: Production; Arrangement; Guitar; Synthesizer; Bass (1, 5); Keys (5, 8); Aaron Parks: Piano (2, 9); Tian Bai: Piano (3, 6, 7); Hao Zeng: Piano (1); Voision Xi: Backing Vocal (1, 2, 8); Dong Hua: Vocal (1, 2); Leah Dou: Vocal, Lyricist (5); Adam O'Farrill: Trumpet (2); Ke Zhang: Bass; Yu An: Drums (except 3); Arrangement (5); Yongheng Wu: Drums (3); Bowen Ma: Lyricist (1).

Album information

Title: Atypical Airship | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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