One of the most individualistic albums to come over the transom here in recent months is Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching, streaming at Spotify. The Dallas band (not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese group) play jazz and jazz-adjacent sounds with Chinese lyrics, both covers and originals. The bandname is a pun: the Song Dynasty in China lasted from approximately 960 to 1279 AD. During this period, China was one of the world’s great powers, a leader in scientific innovation. Thanks to invention of gunpowder, the Chinese navy ruled the waves off the coast of Asia for centuries.
You might not expect such a searing guitar solo as Ben Holt plays in the band’s otherwise understatedly slinky lounge-funk cover of the Chinese pop hit, Fa Su Ha (Under the Blossom Tree), but that’s the band’s strong suit. Their music is very unpredictable. Frontwoman Li Liu sings expressively, airy and misty at the same time in this case. She has a very expressive and dynamic delivery that transcends the limitations of language: you don’t have to speak Chinese to get a good sense of what she’s putting across.
The first Liu original here, Tango Cha has more of a bite, both vocally and musically, Dan Porter’s glittering piano edging toward latin noir over the low-key pulse of bassist Corentin le Hir and drummer Hiroki Kitazawa; Holt and saxophonist Jeff Chang add chill solos.
Liu sings the album’s disquietingly modal title ballad in both English and Chinese; Porter’s spare chords and precise ripples enhance the theme of struggling to find inner calm. Liu adds original lyrics to a bustling samba reinvention of Herlin Riley’s Shake Off the Dust, then remakes the standard I Remember You as a cool, briskly tiptoeing swing tune with her own lyrics as well.
Liu and Holt revert to low-key, twinkling Hollywood Hills funk in Flying, with Porter on Rhodes, trumpeter Kevin Swaim and trombonist Kenny Davis adding bright harmonies. The group open Heart in Sorrow, a setting of a text by Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao, as wide-angle chords by Holt and Porter gently edge into a moody jazz waltz.
Liu brings both her sultriest and most insistent vocals to Ai Ta (Love Him) as the band return to slinky funk, with a sly dubwise bass solo by guest Mike Luzecky and some welcome grit from Holt. They close with the album’s most trad and chipper tune, Summer Ride, nicking the chords from Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. This is a vocalist and backing band – there’s not a lot of interplay here. But the ideas and the creativity make you want to hear more.