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Category: chinese music

The WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble Reinvent Fascinating, Famous Themes From Their Home Turf

The WVC Malaysian Jazz Ensemble are famous on their own turf and deserve to be vastly better known around the world. 2020 was as hellish a year for them as it was for everybody other than the likes of Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates, and saw the ensemble pared down to a trio. Their latest album, Purnama – streaming at Bandcamp – was originally scheduled for release last year, and merges two themes. The first is the moon and the mysterious lore associated with it. The other is the music of the pre-independence era in Malaysia, where traditional native songs blended with influences from points on the Asian continent, from India all the way to China and around the globe as well.

Interestingly, Asian tonalities come front and center here less than half the time. Vintage jazz and blues vernacularss, and a lyrical neoromantic sensibility, are just as prevalent in these reinterpretations. The band open with an elegant, increasingly jaunty instrumental trio version of Hitam Mamis. a big 1950s hit for crooner R. Azmi. Pianist Tay Cher Siang adds graceful ornamentation to the pentatonically-infused melody, bassist Aj Popshuvit taking a dancing solo as extrovert drummer Adriel Wong – the Malay Rudy Royston – rises from a gentle jazz waltz to a sizzling coda capped off by the piano.

A lively, Brazilian-tinged, similarly crescendoing remake of another crooner hit from a few years later, Bing Slamet’s Lenggang Mak Limah features resonant guitar from Rizal Tony. Then the quartet shuffle jauntily through their reharmonized reinvention of the 1953 Ahmad Jaafar love song Ibu, up to an unexpected shift into swing ballad mode with Janet Lee on vocals.

Wong’s colorful, counterintuitive bursts propel Main Shayar to Nahin, a theme from the 1973 Bollywood crime movie Bobby, into unexpectedly animated terrain beneath the piano’s brooding neoromanticisms. Great song, great new interpretation.

Malay jazz hero Jimmy Boyle’s Putera Puteri also gets a memorably turbulent bustle from Wong, along with austerely purposeful alto sax from Yow Weng Wai. a powerful, McCoy Tyner-esque piano solo and a conversationally triangulated guitar/piano/sax outro.

The simple, folky guitar-and voice version of the love ballad Jingli Nona here – sung by Tony – draws on the bawdy Portuguese-Javanese patois version Siang heard as a kid. Tunggu Sekejap, a lament from the 1958 Malay film Sergeant Hassan originally sung by director P. Ramlee, gets a mutedly lilting piano trio remake with singer Izen Kong out in front. Siang’s scrambling solo comes as a real jolt.

Lee returns to the mic for a coy, knowing version of Penang Samba, a bouncy 1950s hit for Malay chanteuse Lena, referencing the city’s hotspots of the era. Jocelyn Wong sings another Lena hit, Hatiku Rindu, ranging from a mysterious hush to a moody intensity as the band sway matter-of-factly through its thorny, enigmatic chromatics. The duel between Tony and Siang before the last chorus is one of the album’s high points.

Siang’s emphatically articulated chromatics fuel an aggressive take of Joget Malaysia, a 1964 P. Ramlee shout-out to post-imperialist nation-building: it’s the best instrumental on the album. Song of Crossing at Dawn is based on a funny don’t-want-to-wake-up folk song from the Chinese immigrant community, Tan Jie’s frantic shakuhachi giving way to Siang’s insistent piano and a growing monsoon from the drums. This dude does not want to get out of bed!

The band wind up the album with the title track, mashing up a 1954 film musical number with Debussy. Tan Chee Shen’s dramatic vocals and Ng Chor Guan’s theremin add a chilling Lynchian edge. What an absolutely fascinating and unique way to end a fascinating and unique album.

Min Xiao-Fen Releases a Darkly Surreal New Score to a Classic Chinese Silent Film

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the world’s great adventurers on the magical Chinese pipa lute. She first made a name for herself with her spiky, incisive arrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes, but she has done immense cross-pollination with the instrument in the years since. She’s also a brilliant singer and a composer whose eclecticism is as vast as you would expect considering her background. Her songs can be spare and intimate, in keeping with tradition, or explosively symphonic. Her latest album White Lotus – streaming at Spotify – is an original score for Wu Yonggang’s 1934 silent film The Goddess, a tragic melodrama about a Shanghai hooker who battles an evil pimp as she struggles to provide for her son’s education. The soundtrack is a duo collaboration with a similarly adventurous, cinematic artist, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who plays both acoustic and electric here

The album opens with a stark, hypnotically circling pipa theme and ambient guitar effects, dialogue from the film and fragments of the bandleader’s operatic vocals floating through the mix. There are moments where the textural contrast between Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and the pipa are subtle but distinct, others where it’s harder to distinguish between them since he sometimes uses a pipa-style tremolo-picking attack.

The galloping, syncopated, darkly windswept third track is mostly Abbasi multitracks. A handful of drifting passages for vocals and solo guitar are more spare and pensive.

A tableau for vocals and solo guitar channels utter desolation. There’s a bristling chase scene with occasional flickers of Greek rembetiko music. Echoes of bluegrass music, a tense nocturne, and a distantly sinister blend of ba-bump cabaret and the blues follow in turn. Interestingly, the moments where Asian pentatonics are front and center are few and far between, heightening the exotic effect. Toward the end, there are a couple of themes that come across as acoustic Pat Metheny with Chinese tinges. This is a gripping, dynamically shifting mix of styles that fits right into both artists’ constantly growing and paradigm-shifting bodies of work.

Haunting, Intense, Politically Potent Pan-Asian Inspired New Sounds From Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu’s music is hypnotic, frequently nocturnal, incantatory and informed by ancient myths and traditions spanning across Asia. Inspired by those traditions, Shyu hardly limits herself to the kind of separation between artistic disciplines which so often dominates those practices in the west. Much of the music on her haunting, otherworldly new album Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack for even more ambitious multimedia projects.

Throughout her work, Shyu has always focused on commonalities, drawing on artistic and cultural influences from Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, Japan and beyond. This album shares that universality yet is also her most personal one. It’s rooted in the here and now, a response to bereavement and tragedy, addressing the sudden loss of Shyu’s beloved father as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lockdown. Here Shyu sings, narrates and plays Japanese biwa, Taiwanese moon lute and piano, joined by her Jade Tongue ensemble with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

In the opening suite, Living’s a Gift, Shyu becomes a one-woman choir delivering a pastiche of lyrics written by choir students at MS51 in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope during the grim early days of the lockdown. The band waft and dance gently behind her as she mashes up classic soul balladry, punchy indie classical, acerbic theatricality and a little hip-hop. If there’s any music that’s been released since March 16 of last year that gives voice to the relentless psychological torture that children in New York have suffered at the hands of the lockdowners, this is it: “Hope for the best, expect the worst,” as one of the kids blithely puts it in the first segment. No wonder suicide among young people is up sixty percent over the past year.

Akinmusire plays a solemn farewell over Maneri and Morgan’s stark, microtonal washes, Shyu’s piano driving a seething undercurrent in Lament for Breonna Taylor: the lyrics are from Taylor’s mom Tamika Palmer’s remiscence about her daughter’s plans to become a nurse before she was gunned down in a home invasion by Louisville police.

The Human Color, an understately lustrous piano ballad originally released in 2009, reflects on the enslavement of Chinese alongside Africans under the conquistadors in 19th century Cuba. A Cure for the Heart’s Longing, a more intertwining ballad spiced with spiky moon lute, is a setting of Javanese poetry by legendary wayang artist Sri Joko Raharjo. Shyu reprises a similar mood later, with more of a nocturnal sweep, in Finally She Emerges.

Shyu’s voice reaches an imploring, chilling intensity in Body of Tears, an anguished account of the moment she was informed she’d lost her dad, rising from troubled grace to anguished insistence. The stark, shamanistic When I Have Power is arguably the most powerful track on the album, Shyu singing from her high school diary. At 15, while selling candy on the bus on the way home from school, she was confronted by a kid who harrassed her and used a racist slur. “When I’m famous, I’m going to set things straight,” she resolved.

Display Under the Moon, a traditional Japanese biwa song, has fiercely plucked, operatic drama, a soldier in the moonlight dreading the next day’s battle. Plus ça change

The album’s final three tracks are dedicated to Shyu’s dad. Father Slipped into the Eternal Dream, based on a parable by Zhuangzi, is a kinetically soaring exploration of how to carry on in the face of bereavement and despondency. The lyrics reaffirm that our capacity to feel such emotional intensity is what makes us human.

With Eyes Closed You See All, a towering, bustling piano-fueled tone poem of sorts, channels hope and feminist determination to shift the paradigm toward equality. Shyu closes the album with Live What You Envision, a carpe-diem theme that picks up from elegantly plucked multitracks to a fierce coda.

For a listener who doesn’t speak any of Shyu’s many Asian languages, it’s a treat to be able to understand the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and to hear her assert herself as a great song stylist in the Betty Carter tradition. The only thing better than listening to this often harrowing record would be to witness what she would do with it onstage if she could. Hmmm…Shyu’s a native Texan, and Texas is one of the free states…

Get Lost in Southeast of Rain’s Magical Soundscapes

Back in the spring of 2017, singer Lemon Guo opened an outdoor festival along the Hudson River sponsored by Columbia University. Her calmly hypnotic yet gently playful electroacoustic set, a blend of ambient music with traditional Asian tinges, could have gone on twice as long as it did and the crowd stretched across the lawn would have been happy to hear it. Fast forward to 2021: Guo has a new album, 42 Days, by her  duo project Southeast of Rain, an online collaboration with pipa player Sophia Shen streaming at Bandcamp. Recorded remotely over the web during the lockdown, it’s similarly intimate, intriguing, inviting music.

Shen plays solo in Constellations, the first number, making her way from delicate tremolo-picking, through spare bends, enigmatic thickets and echoey harmonics, pushing the limits of traditional pentatonic Chinese modes. That was day four of the two musicians’ collaboration. Day eight, Between Fleeting Somethings has a coastal California rainstorm, fleeting vocal peaks, slow doppler-like ambience and gentle rattles from Shen’s pipa.

The eleventh day of the two musicians’ collaboration was a productive one, a trance-inducing Shen soundscape peppering immersive ambience with sudden metallic flickers. Day eighteen is titled To Frank the Owl. a steady, catchy, balletesque theme: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sofia Rei catalog.

Guo’s plaintive, hauntingly microtonal chorale, Luminescence, descends from Bulgarian-inflected leaps and bounds to more stark, spaciously drifting figures. Day 25, Traveler, has Guo’s Balkan melismas far back in the mix behind an enigmatic calm.

If Improvising at the Gym reflects actual events, it’s a beautiful, stark and slowly unwinding example of what a couple of composers can do when the endorphins kick in, Guo’s warmly mapled clarity over Shen’s elegant tremolo-picking. The two wind up the album with Unwanted Bits, Shen’s wounded, exploratory plucking over a surreal pastiche of found sounds. If this is what Guo and Shen can do without the the chemistry of actually playing together in person, imagine what magic they’ll be able to conjure once we’re all free of the lockdown.

Stirring Drama and Persistent Unease in Huang Ruo’s First Symphonic Album

Huang Ruo’s music is instantly recognizable and completely unique. He likes brass and percussion, but utilizes both in surprising ways, especially in his most horizontal moments. The many traditions of his native China are an influence, but subtly. Close harmonies, dense orchestration and the stately grandeur of Chinese court music are persistent tropes throughout his diverse new album Into the Vast World – streaming at Spotify – the first collection of his symphonic works. Liang Zhang conducts the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with equal parts fire and precision in this live concert performance from the fall of 2019.

Ruo himself shows off a dramatic, highly ornamented falsetto in his long a-cappella introduction to the pulsing first number, Shattered Steps – in an imaginary, improvised language. In the beginning this is a fanfare, it’s a dance, it’s driving and dramatic, with lots of bracing close harmonies. A sudden stillness fueled by unsettled brass and low flutters ensues; Zhang meticulously leads the ensemble up a long slope toward starrier but also more suspenseful textures. After a hint of a spring ritual, Ruo returns for the shivery coda.

Becoming Another, a study in contrasts between stillness and activity, has a persistent, enveloping tension, horizontality looming behind a series of increasingly animated motives. Counterintuitively, it grows more lustrously atmospheric as a minimalist fanfare spirals up through the cloud: John Luther Adams’ recent environmentally-themed work is a good point of comparison.

Ruo returns to the same dichotomy in Stil/Motion, which is more minimal, with simpler, persistent rhythms, and covers a wider dynamic range.

Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sings two segments from Ruo’s opera An American Soldier, based on the short life of Private Danny Chen, who was murdered by fellow American troops during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The first part, So That’s the Man, has an acidic, accusatory, gusty intensity as his mother witnesses the courtmartial of the racists who killed him. Yang delivers the first moment of distinctly Chinese pentatonics over restlessly drifting, brass-tinged atmosphere in the second, Lullaby: Sleep Now, Little One

The Two Pieces For Orchestra begin with a Fanfare which has more of the same brass and fleeting upper-register motives puncturing a dense, nebulous atmosphere. The second part, Announcement opens with a distant paraphrase of a Chinese riverboat song, tossing and then floating while the percussion section maintains a relentless intensity. The massed string glissandos are an unexpected extra shot of adrenaline and offer no hint of the windswept cello-fueled interlude afterward. The orchestra calmly sing the outro before one of Ruo’s characteristic, dramatic gong crashes at the end.

The orchestra wind up the album with four shorter works also based on folk themes. With its precise, racewalking beat and stabbing flutes, Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang has a martial feel. Love Song from Kang Ding and Little Blue Flower are the album’s most hypnotically circling piece, yet each also rises to a pulsing drama, the latter with a plaintive violin solo. The ensemble make a triumphant anthem out of The Girl from Da Ban City, a catchy taxi driver’s song, to wind up the album.

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

A Rare, Explosive New York Performance of Ancient Chinese Music and Puppetry

The manic energy of Chinese New Year in New York can’t compare with Saturday night’s performance by the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Ethical Culture Society. Staged by the World Music Institute, the show featured not only hammering medieval battle songs to rival any Viking pageantry, but also boisterous, droll shadow puppetry. Wu Man wryly characterized it as “old Chinese rock and roll.”

As chronicled in the 2012 documentary film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, the lute virtuoso has been on a crusade to preserve rapidly vanishing folk styles across her vast home turf. As you would imagine, Chinese sounds are every bit as diverse as American music. This concert was a rare opportunity to experience feral, centuries-old village traditions from a dynastic family band which has been active since the 1700s, updated with some spine-tingling 21st century improvisation. Wu Man is the first woman to ever play with this crew, which until recently had been strictly a family enterprise, run by the Zhang clan of farmers from a mountain village in Shaanxi Province.

One of their instruments was a robust handmade wooden bench that percussionist Dang Anhua had brought from home. His wife had sewed a pretty pink carrying case which typically draws mystified looks from airport checkin personnel across the globe, Wu Man explained. That bench absorbed several mighty whacks to cap off a battlefield scenario, and gave the floor of the stage several mighty thumps as well.

Wu Man opened the show with a couple of solo pipa pieces, a traditional number followed by an original, shifting sometimes elegantly and sometimes suddenly from lilting pastoral passages to fiery volleys of tremolo-picking and the occasional sparkling glissando.

A rustic, sawing quartet of erhu fiddles – one a low-register zhunghu model, akin to a Chinese cello – kicked off the first group piece, frontman and moon lute player Zhang Ximin leading the ensemble with his hearty, theatrical vocals. Many of the group numbers commemorated battles from the first century A.D. Others retold ancient fables, from a creation myth to a droll shadow puppet piece about a group of villagers fending off a voracious lion.

Wu Man is an irrepressible extrovert, a generous and insightful ambassador for traditional Chinese music and is also very funny, whether enumerating the difference in Chinese dialects, recounting the group’s adventures on the road or trading peek-a-boo riffs with various group members. Zhang Shinin played several percussion instruments including a small gong, and served as puppeteer as well. Zhang Qansi, Zhang Xinmin and Dang Guangdi played erhu, with Yuan Yuti on zhunghu, and Liu Xicang on banhu, a long trumpet.

The concert followed a dynamic path, with intricate pipa pastorales interspersed among the jubilant, catchy, pentatonoic anthems. Shivery fiddling, elephantine snorts from the trumpet and raucous percussion rose and fell, Wu Man a gentle but forceful, pointillistic presence with her rippling strings.

The World Music Institute’s next show is a  Middle Eastern-flavored triplebill of brilliant Middle Eastern and North African women performers at the Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday night, March 24 at 7:30 PM. Fiery Tunisian art-rocker Emel Mathlouthi, slinky, oud-fueled Middle Eastern/Nile Delta dance orchestra Alsarah & the Nubatones and Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj share the bill: tix are expensive, $35, but worth it.

Stephanie Chou’s Chinese Jazz Shifts the Paradigm at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center booked Stephanie Chou and her quartet to celebrate International Women’s Day. They couldn’t have made a more imaginative choice. Chou is a strong singer with an unadorned mezzo-soprano, a strong saxophonist and a brilliantly individualistic composer who’s shifting the paradigm, blending Chinese themes from over the centuries with jazz, classical and more than a little rock in places. Her show last night drew heavily from her latest, innovative album, Asymptote. Her music is relevant, and lyrical, and amazingly eclectic, typical of the programming here lately.

The concert began with Isamu McGregor’s pointillistic, twinkling upper-register piano, joined by Andy Lin’s stark erhu fiddle. Then in a split second he picked up his viola and plucked out a spiky pizzicato riff before returning to the erhu as In the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a new version of the famous 1970s Teresa Teng Chinese pop hit, picked up steam.

Chou picked up her alto sax for General’s Command, reinventing an old Fujianese zither song as hard-hitting, kinetic postbop with more than a hint of gospel, Lin’s violin adding shivery ambience behind Chou’s calm, resolute melody.

“We’re gonna switch gears a little bit,” the college math major and bandleader explained, introducing the lustrous title cut from the new album. “The more you look the less you really see,” she sang: the enveloping, enigmatic sweep of the sax, viola, piano and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza’s muted mallets on the toms dovetailed with the philosophical paradox it alludes to, two lines converging infinitely but never reaching the same point.

Quiet Night Thought – a tropically-tinged setting of a Li Bai poem – followed a similarly lush, distantly brooding nocturnal tangent, Chou singing in Chinese. Then they switched gears again: Lin’ s solo version of an old folk song about birds flutttered, and chirped ,and soared, but with a fluidity that would make any feathered friend jealous.

Chou illustrated Odysseus’ arduous journey home to his true love with Penelope, a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo. It would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago.

Chou returned to Chinese with her vocals in Making Tofu – inspired by a funny proverb about an only slightly less arduous process – a moody jazz waltz with a gorgeous, sternly crescendoing meteor shower of a piano solo and ominously modal sax work. Who knew so much energy was required to make those innocuous little cubes!

She led the crowd in a Chinese tongue-twister – the gist of it was, “If you eat grapes you spit out the peel, if you don’t eat grapes then you don’t” – then scatted it as Sperrazza rattled his toms and woodblock. She got serious again with the somberly verdant, astringently crescendoing tonalities of In the Forest, inspired by Johann Stolting, a 19th scientist turned hermit and something of a tragic character in her Irvington, New York hometown

Chou’s latest project explores the struggles of the women forced into prostitution by the Japanese in World War II. The world premiere of Manchurian Girl, a reworking of a 1938 Chinese pop song, had a sardonic martial beat: the longing and disillusion in Chou’s voice was visceral and transcended any linguistic limitations. She followed with a dramatic ballad, McGregor’s lingering glitter contrasting with Lin’s insistent attack and closed with a brief tone poem of sorts, part Debussy and part stately Chinese folk.

The next jazz show at Lincoln Center the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is an especially amazing one, with ageless latin jazz piano icon Eddie Palmieri and his band on March 16 at 7:30 PM The show is free so get there early or else.