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.