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Yuwen Peng: Putting a Spin on Sizhukong

Ian Patterson By

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Yuwen Peng doesn't like resting on her laurels. The pianist, composer and founder of Taiwanese sextet Sizhukong had already taken a bold step in integrating Western instruments, African music and jazz harmonies with traditional Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs on Sizhukong's self-titled debut recording in 2007. The follow-up to that, Paper Eagle (Sizhukong Records, 2009), followed a very similar pattern, though the refinement in the band's sound was notable.

More of the same wouldn't have been a total surprise; after all, Peng had been working for more than half a dozen years on her musical concept for Sizhukong. However, Peng is clearly a curious soul, and rather than repeat a winning formula, she chose instead to head into personally uncharted musical territory by jazzing up Sizhukong. For the first time, electronic keyboards and electric guitar color the music, bringing the band's sound a little closer to the jazz fusion of Herbie Hancock—a major influence on Peng.

Sizhukong's new direction impressed Sony, which signed the band and released its third CD, Spin, in 2012. Many of Sizhukong's trademarks are present, from Peng's jazz-inspired piano and the blend of traditional Chinese and Western instruments. Nevertheless, this Sizhukong is a different beast altogether—more contemporary and more adventurous than before. The band's first foray into North America in March was a great success, vindicating Peng's new musical direction for the band she started in 2005 upon returning from Berklee to her native Taiwan.

All About Jazz: Yuwen, recently you performed a special project with Sizhukong. Could you tell us what that was about, please?

That was a concert we did at the end of September, where we incorporated an aboriginal singer, whose name is Ilid Kaolo, from the Amei aboriginal Taiwanese tribe. We started learning the songs and dance from her last year. Together with Ilid and me, there were two more composers; one is a jazz violinist called Stephane Hwang and then a pianist/songwriter, also graduated from Berklee, called Chialun Yu. The four of us would meet every month and learn something from Ilid, so we could put her tribal songs and dance into our compositions.

We have given two concerts this year with Sizhukong, a six-piece band, as you know, the singer Ilid, a string quartet, and Chialun also played percussion and some piano parts. For the September concert, we added Hwa Jou Shieh, the guitarist on the Spin album.

AAJ: That sounds like an exciting lineup.

YP: It was fun, but too much work for me [laughs].

AAJ: What was the makeup of the string quartet?

YP: Two violins, one viola and one cello.

AAJ: That sounds like a beautiful combination. Yuwen, after Paper Eagle it would have been easy to repeat such a successful formula, but with Spin you've taken a new direction. Tell us a little about the evolution of Sizhukong's music in the last couple of years.

YP: After Paper Eagle, I thought I had to try new ways to put Chinese music together with modern music. I didn't want to repeat Paper Eagle. At that time, in 2010, we thought about adding an electric sound. We tried it in concert. We tried most of the songs recorded in the new album, Spin, in concert two years ago already. We used electric guitar, electric bass and keyboards. We even used some loops in the concert, surround-sound effects.

AAJ: What is Hwa Jou Shieh's background?

YP: He's a professional guitarist playing various kinds of concerts and recording sessions. He studied guitar and jazz in Taiwan.

AAJ: He brings an interesting new element to Sizhukong. Is the electric-guitar part of Sizhukong's live sound these days?

YP: He played in the 2010 concert, but he is a guest of the band. We don't always include him in our concerts.

AAJ: Another change since Paper Eagle is the absence of bassist Martjin Vanbuel. Has he left Sizhukong?

YP: Yeah. He left because he's too busy with his own band.

AAJ: So who plays bass in concert?

YP: Toshi [Fujii].

AAJ: But he can't play bass and drums at once, so if he plays bass, who is on drums?

YP: We have different drummers playing with us. Right now we have a female drummer called Guang Liang Lin. Sometimes we play without a drummer, too.

AAJ: Doesn't that greatly affect the dynamics of the band? Does it create difficulties, or does it in some way create a new type of freedom?

YP: It does affect the dynamics of the band. With a drummer, we get the full sound of Sizhukong, and the jazz feel is more obvious. But when playing without a drummer, it creates a more chamber-music type of sound, and the subtleties and timbre of the Chinese instruments and the piano can stand out more. On about half of the songs, Alex would play percussion, so we can still have the drive of the groove. Also, the lineup without a drummer sounds better when playing in a small venue.

AAJ: Another significant change is the reduced role of Chihling Chen's mandolin and lute. Why was that?

YP: We used more electronic effects, and so we used more electric guitar than acoustic ones. We did try some effects on the ruan, but it didn't work too well.


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