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Voision Xi: Lost For Words, Found In Sounds

Voision Xi: Lost For Words, Found In Sounds

Courtesy Wilson Shi


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Shanghai has the soil for jazz.
—Voision Xi
Voision Xi has been taking steps from behind the scenes to centre stage. Starting out as a program coordinator at China's multi-faceted jazz business company JZ Music, she has swiftly risen to be one of the most active jazz vocalists in the country. Warmth and the simplest joy can be found in her singing, with no trace of sentimentality.

Born at the end of the 1980s, Voision Xi grew up witnessing China's opening-up, economic reform and rapid growth, and the ensuing cultural diversification. As a result, the social environment increasingly included western popular music. This influenced her approach to music and thus distinguished her from China's previous generations of musicians. Originally a native of Jiangsu province, she moved to Shanghai after college because, as she says, "Shanghai has the soil for jazz." In fact, she received no long-term professional training in music, and was mostly self-taught. However, she has proved that interest is the best teacher and perseverance the supervisor. While immersing herself in the jazz industry, and surrounding herself with professionals, she has developed an individual style.

Four years ago, she came onto the scene with her EP of covers entitled Debut (Eating Music, 2018). The EP contains five standards, namely "Slow Hot Wind" (Henry Mancini), "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" (Stevie Wonder), "Be Bop Lives (Boplicity)" (Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Cleo Henry), "River Man" (Nick Drake), and "How Insensitive" (Antonio Carlos Jobim). Rearranged by guitarist Xiongguan Zhang, Jun Xiao and saxophonist Shihai Li, these were distinct songs from different backgrounds, which Voision put into one EP release. Just when everyone was about to tag her as an innovative interpreter of standards, she had already moved onto new projects, such as combining poetry and music, and genre-crossing collaborations with non-jazz musicians. She has grown to be not only an adventurous genre-blending vocalist, but also a poet, lyricist, composer, and producer of her own vocal materials. She is always ready for a challenge on the leading edge of music in the process of localizing jazz in China.

Lost For Words (Taihe Rye/JZ Records, 2022) ushers in a new musical direction. Improvisation, which is of paramount importance in jazz music, is still new to Chinese ears. Hence, how to introduce jazz and improvisation to the audience in a less abstract manner, becomes the biggest challenge. In China, jazz has long been seen as imported, foreign and exotic. To change this, true originality is the solution. So this time, Voision Xi takes one step backward to view improvised music as a whole, and invites various non-jazz musicians into the project. While she refines her trans genre expressions, the simplest emotions have been invoked. Happiness in particular, as her family name suggests in Mandarin.

With an exciting new chapter beckoning, Voision Xi reflects on her career to date, gives insights on her first full album and shares her observations on jazz in China.

All About Jazz: Your stage name "Voision" is not your Chinese given name. Is there a story behind it?

Voision Xi: I love listening to music and taking photos, so I created this name based on a combination of "voice" and "vision" when I was in college.

AAJ: What was your first encounter with jazz?

VX: In high school, I was just browsing music websites and I heard some tunes by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Nat King Cole. The faucet was opened and I've not been able to turn it off since. The first time I saw a jazz performance was in 2007 in Suzhou, my hometown. It was a show by the Shanghai-based American drummer Chris Trzcinski and his trio.

AAJ: Can you recall that performance?

VX: It was on a night during my freshman winter vacation. I found the event information on the internet and imagined it would probably be something like a restaurant live music performance I'd seen before. The venue was tiny and a little crowded. I stood and watched all the sets. For the first time, I discovered that jazz could be such an interactive form. The dialogues between the musicians were improvised based on their music scores. It was completely different from my feelings when listening to jazz on record, and even more brain-burning than watching rock music performances. After that night, I began to search for more types of jazz to listen to and always looked forward to seeing more jazz performances.

AAJ: At what point did you decide to become a jazz singer?

VX: It was about seven years ago, after a jam session at [long-running Shanghai jazz venue] JZ Club's anniversary. I got invited by the host to sing one song with the band. It wasn't my first jam, but I remember when I was singing "Cry Me A River," I saw more and more people gathering around the stage with looks of surprise on their faces. Before that, I think they'd just seen me only as someone who worked in the public relations department for JZ. A few musicians came up to me after I had finished the jam, saying that my singing was natural and beautiful. Then someone asked me to play some gigs. Up until that point I'd just been a fan of jazz and someone working in the public relations department at JZ Club—I was always in the audience watching other people perform. But the reaction that night gave me the encouragement I needed to take to the stage myself.

AAJ: Are you essentially a self-taught jazz singer, or did you have any professional schooling?

VX: I didn't go to music school or participate in any long-term jazz programs. But in the past few years, when foreign artists came to Shanghai to perform, or when I had a short stay in New York, I got opportunities to have personal lessons with some great vocalists I admire, such as Theo Bleckmann, Tina May, Sachal Vasandani, Becca Stevens, Cyrille Aimée, Christie Dashiell, Aubrey Johnson, and Coco Zhao.

AAJ: Who have been your main musical influences?

VX: Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini, Ivan Lins, Joyce Moreno, Lyle Mays, Fred Hersch, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Marquis Hill, Becca Stevens, Sam Gendel, and many more. They have inspired me at different times and diversified my listening aesthetics.

Nina Simone let me know for the first time that when it came to singing jazz standards, I didn't have to sing in the "standard" way. Lyle Mays and Kurt Rosenwinkel led me to fall in love with magnificent expansive jazz compositions. Besides Joyce Moreno's songwriting skills, her experience as a journalist made me more confident to take my own path.

Of course, lots of people learn about pieces from the masters when they're getting into jazz, but I also appreciate young artists with jazz backgrounds and their innovative works. Sometimes some of their works can't really be called jazz, but you will discover that the spirit of jazz always exists in the music.

AAJ: Of course, you are not just a singer; can you tell us about your multiple roles in the Chinese music industry?

VX: Singing is my main role on the stage, but I write and produce music now as well. In addition to my work as a jazz artist, I've also released two experimental electronic EPs.

However, my longest-running role in the Chinese music industry so far has been helping to plan and promote other artists' projects. From 2011 to 2019, I worked full-time for JZ Music Group and its annual international jazz festival, working alongside artists such as McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Roy Ayers, Snarky Puppy, and Laura Fygi. Since I became a freelancer three years ago, I've been mainly working with Chinese jazz artists on their music distribution. Sometimes I organize events together with my friends, trying to open up more possibilities for our music community.

AAJ: Jazz is still pretty new to most Chinese. It is such a different mindset, musically and spiritually. Do your family and friends that don't belong to the industry understand what you are doing, who you are, and what jazz is?

VX: Like most people in China, my family members don't understand jazz music that much. They can understand easy-listening jazz tunes that make them feel more comfortable. However, classic Mandarin and Cantonese pop songs are still their favorites. Thankfully, they support what I did and what I am doing all the time. I always try to help give them more of a feel for jazz music's diversity, and I especially hope to impress them with my live performances. And I think over the years they've become more appreciative of it. My mum listens to Ella Fitzgerald and is reading the book I bought her, The Visual Language of ECM, at home now. Most of my friends love jazz music because they are also part of the industry.

AAJ: Nowadays Chinese youth have much greater exposure to western music, including jazz, than previous generations. In the past, there weren't all these venues, festivals, and other organizations that seek to introduce and even promote jazz music to the public. The internet has made everything easier and more direct, too. Do you think that young Chinese people today are more open to jazz and other western music forms than their parents' generation?

VX: Yes, I think so. Every time I perform, I can see teenage audiences, which is very exciting. When I was a teenager, it was difficult to see such scenes. Compared with other genres, jazz is still not popular in the country. But there's been a clear trend of more and more young people in China becoming interested in watching jazz performances and studying jazz in recent years. Younger Chinese people have access to a variety of music genres. There are now more options for people to choose jazz lessons, either offline or online.

Quite a few Chinese jazz musicians have started teaching projects as well. You can easily find jazz live venues in major cities in China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou. Some musicians and bands in other genres have also begun to learn how to integrate jazz into their creations.

AAJ: How did your earlier management experiences contribute to your latter performance career?

VX: When I worked on the management side, I learned about the culture of jazz from different perspectives and got a general picture of the music industry today. I think those experiences have helped me build a more independent artistic character. I've seen a lot of what others have done before me, so now, whether I'm arranging new music or planning a release concert, I always want to try something that no one else has done yet in China.

AAJ: Let's move on to your EP Debut released in 2018. It consists of five rearranged songs. They have all been related to jazz in different ways before your interpretations. Why did you choose them?

VX: I chose those five songs from my all-time favorite records. The opening track is "Slow Hot Wind" (originally named "Lujon"), Henry Mancini's classic 1961 composition which was first released on the soundtrack to Mr. Lucky Goes Latin. Its poetic melody has echoed in my mind countless times since I first heard it in college. The last track "How Insensitive" by Antonio Carlos Jobim is the first Brazilian song I ever learned to sing. These two songs became my first choices for Debut, but I wanted to present them in a different way from the original versions.

"Be Bop Lives (Boplicity)" from the famous Birth of Cool album by Miles Davis is the only fast-tempo bebop classic on this EP. This was one where I really forced myself to get out of my comfort zone: I sang and scatted along with the brass melody, attempting to meet the challenges posed by the pitch and the rhythm.

A similar challenge also appeared in the fourth track "River Man," originally by legendary British folk singer Nick Drake. There are already some great jazz interpretations of this song, such as Brad Mehldau's version. But out of my love for folk and contemporary jazz, I decided to contribute another version, a new interpretation.

"Cause We've Ended As Lovers" comes from Stevie Wonder's album Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta , dedicated to his former wife. The ups and downs of the melody leave many possibilities for rearrangement. And it is probably the most narrative song on Debut.

AAJ: Three musicians were involved in the five songs' rearrangement. Guitarist Xiongguan Zhang, guitarist Jun Xiao, and saxophonist Shihai Li are all rising stars on the domestic jazz scene, and as arrangers, they were responsible for different songs on the EP. What was it like working with them separately?

VX: This question immediately draws me back to the past! Xiongguan Zhang's bold arrangements of "Slow Hot Wind" and "How Insensitive" really demonstrate his distinct vibrancy and warmth. He was also the co-producer on Debut, and he gave me a lot of good suggestions on other tracks, such as trying the strolling style in the arrangement of "Boplicity." Shihai Li and I liked that idea and we worked closely to turn it into something we were both satisfied with.

"River Man" is Shihai's favorite folk song too, so we spent a lot of time talking about this beautiful piece and trying different groove changes on the piano. I asked Shihai to accompany me in harmonized singing exercises before the recording session, which I feel greatly improved our tacit cooperation once we were rolling.

In Stevie's piece, Jun Xiao paid more attention to its rich emotional levels, and he added a lot of depth with his guitars in the arrangement. We improvised and made a lot of space for the interaction between voice and guitar.

At that time, Xiongguan, Jun, and Shihai had all released albums of their own original jazz compositions. But Debut was the first time they arranged songs for someone else since they returned to China from studying in the United States. I feel very lucky to have shared this experience with them.

AAJ: A few years ago, you started your singing career by interpreting jazz standards. Now you have accumulated a repertoire of original songs in both English and Chinese. How is it different to sing in the two languages?

VX: In general, I think singing jazz in English is more simple and more flexible in balancing pronunciation, tone, and rhythm. Chinese, especially Mandarin, if compared with English or other common languages in jazz songs, probably doesn't sound that smooth sometimes. When writing English lyrics, I usually think of some classic standards. The muscle memory helps me write fluently and come out with the right words.

However, writing Chinese songs takes me on to a different journey of creating singable texts. Very few jazz songs were lyricized in Chinese, which means we do not have many good examples to follow, and even fewer references to take. The "right words" have to be meaningful and singable at the same time. Sometimes, the meaningful words don't go with the musical flow. Sometimes, the syllables don't naturally rhyme. And sometimes, some Chinese character sounds abrupt in a certain line. I spent a lot of time finding the right words, or rewriting the melodic lines, so as to make them fit together.

Therefore, creative thinking and experimentation become more important. Among my songs, the Chinese lyrics are a bit more straightforward, while the English lyrics are more obscure and abstract. I love writing words to the instrumental works of my musician friends, which is quite good training too. I hope that I can study more about various dialects in different regions of China, which may inspire me to write better Chinese songs in the future.

AAJ: Your new album Lost For Words is significantly different to your Debut EP, yet jazz language and improvisation are still a part of this music. Can you tell us what you were aiming for with this album?

VX: Lost For Words is like my diary which records my musical journey from 2018 to 2021. After the Debut EP, I wanted to make an original album but I didn't have a clear idea at the beginning. Meanwhile, I was able to play in different cities and meet more musicians and artists during this period. Much of the motivation and inspiration behind this record came about during these trips. I began to accumulate pieces over time and finished them in several sessions back in Shanghai. This music diary is about the people and inspirations in my life. The 12 songs tell 12 different stories, containing my inner fullness and conveying the influence I have received from jazz.

AAJ: You have created a unique jazzy style seasoned by improvised sounds, joined by several Shanghai and Taiwan-based jazz musicians. Those musicians retain their own personalities. For instance, keyboardist Sunny Yang is an acknowledged Robert Glasper disciple. At the same time, the album also features non-jazz musicians who focus on electronic, classical, and crossover genres. How did they integrate?

VX: When making Debut, I already wanted to try the integration of jazz and other styles. On Lost For Words, I was able to explore this idea even further. Each song on the album has its own colors. Each track is like a dish in the kitchen, waiting to deliver its own individual flavor as part of a diverse but still cohesive meal.

In this project, a lot of the jazz musicians I worked with wanted to try something different. For example, on the track "Crystalline Improv," upright bassist Chenhuai Wang contributed sounds with his Buchla Music Easel:8, an amazing analog synthesizer. On the tracks "Magnetic Field" and "Turn on the Planet," guitarist Jun Xiao and drummer Ryan An both got to indulge their passion for rock-n-roll. And musicians in non-jazz fields also got involved in the co-creation of the album.

On the track "Seventh," classical cello player Runqing Zhou took part in recording a song in which I combined jazz and poetry for the first time. Ing Lan Chang used to be a classical flautist but now she plays jazz, folk, and Brazilian music a lot. You can hear her characteristics on the tracks "Monday Spirit," "Butterfly, A Hyaline Beauty," and "Wolverine (Silent Chaos)." On the title track, hip-hop beat maker Sdewdent helped make the drum loop sound more appropriate with delicate textures.

We all gradually went in the same direction and were all happy to see different sounds collide with each other and create new effects. It was like musical alchemy.

AAJ: Do you think you will bring your old jazz fans with you on this new musical journey or are you hoping to reach new audiences?

VX:I want to reach new audiences, of course. People who like my new works might have something in common with my old jazz fans, but they may also have totally different tastes in music. I hope people can get to know me through my music. But I can't decide who my audience is. You know, Chinese are very reserved people. Many of us are not very good at showing our emotions, or expressing our opinions. But through jazz, I have learnt to be braver, finding out who I am, who I want to be, and how to let the music just speak for me.

Today, I am used to staying true to myself, and allowing instantaneous emotions to come through while making music. I want to express my very inner self through the language of music, instead of literally "making," or "creating" music. In this case, the byproduct is that I have also learnt to embrace whatever else that happens out of my plan, as the music explores its way forward.

So, old fans or new audiences? I am also curious and excited to find out. As I further reveal myself through music, old fans can walk away or stay, and new audiences might take a seat or pass by. All is possible, right? But to me, the most important thing is that I know and am pleased, for I am being honest with myself and with music in each album, EP, or single, wherever I am and whenever it is. As long as this is the case, I will know that those who stay accept the real me. Even if it is just for that moment. That is enough.

AAJ: How has the pandemic influenced your musical personality and career planning?

VX: In the past three years, the pandemic has made me more hesitant when making plans. I have to consider the possibility of last-minute changes, as well as the loss of money and time. A lot of shows got canceled, especially in 2022, including the release concert for my album Lost For Words. We've lost a lot of opportunities to communicate with others face-to-face. But on the other hand, I was also fortunate to have time to stay at home and continue writing songs.

AAJ: In January, China reopened borders and abandoned quarantine measures in farewell to its three-year "zero-COVID" policy. We are gradually resuming normal life. What are your top priorities now?

VX: To live and work well is the most important thing. I want to travel with my family and friends. And I also want to visit more countries with great music scenes, for example, Japan. In 2022, Lost For Words was released in Japan on CD by Think! Records, a label run by Disk Union, but due to Covid-related measures I haven't been able to go there to promote the record. Hopefully, this can change soon—I'm ready to share my music and thoughts with new audiences!



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