On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities
The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.
The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.
The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.