Monday, November 3, 2008

Harmonious society By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

Harmonious society
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

Jazz duo Phil Morrison (left) and Keith Williams enjoy playing their East-meets-West creations in Beijing. Guan Xin

The sound from Hollow Reed instantly piques your ears. It has a jazz rhythm section, a sprinkling of Latin percussion, but the main melody is played on an erhu, the traditional Chinese instrument sometimes known as "the Chinese two-string fiddle". One cannot be sure whether this is East or West. The best way to describe it is East-meets-West, or what Phil Morrison and Keith Williams call "international harmony".

Hollow Reed is the latest album by American jazz musicians Morrison and Williams, who see their performance in China as not just another gig, but an attempt to fuse two musical styles. Distinct as it is, jazz can be in harmony with a quintessentially Chinese sound like the erhu or dizi, say the jazz duo. The erhu featured on this CD is played by Jiebing Chen, who has a history of seeking out jazz musicians from the US for collaboration.

Some of the tracks lean one way or the other - either more jazzy or more Chinese. China Skies, composed by Morrison, conjures up an image of a Chinese girl singing a folk song in a southern town crisscrossed with canals and boats. The Duke Ellington standard Prelude to a Kiss, on the other hand, is a better example of fusion, where the jazz accompaniment is not eclipsed by the erhu and the erhu takes on a special jaunty feel, almost like a Chinese girl sashaying across a New Orleans saloon.

It may be hard to categorize but this new jazz sound is the product of almost a decade of cultural blending.

Phil Morrison and Keith Williams first came to China in 1999 and played the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai for six months. Since then, they have played in Shanghai four times.

"There was a Chinese orchestra playing in the hotel lobby, complete with a conductor. That was the first time I'd heard Chinese music," recalls Morrison, who plays the bass and has written many of the songs they play.

Pretty soon, they were mingling with local musicians. A Chinese alto-saxophonist joined them for a while; dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and erhu players jammed with them; they appeared in local concerts and lectured in the local music conservatory and children's palaces. "The jazz scene is growing in Shanghai," says Williams, who plays the piano and sometimes provides the vocals too.

Before the duo arrived in Beijing, they didn't know what to expect. "August 1 was the first day we played here, right before the Olympics, and it has been a pleasant surprise," says Morrison. "The city is just as cosmopolitan as Shanghai and the streets are so clean."

"Great food! Great nightlife!" Williams chimes in.

Unfortunately, the Hilton Wangfujing Beijing, where they currently perform six nights a week (except Monday), has had only a "soft opening", which means the turnout is not as big as it should be. But once the music starts, they throw themselves into it, heart and soul, regardless of the audience size.

Viva, vocalist for the Hilton gig, adds a nice touch of glamour and verve. She has been performing in Asia since 2003 and can croon any tune from a repertoire of 200 standards - she knows the familiar ones are often the most popular. In the daytime, she teaches singing and English lessons.

One night recently, an audience member requested The Moon Represented My Heart (Yueliang Daibiao Wo de Xin), the Chinese love song, and he himself hummed the vocal a la karaoke. "This song has been a favorite with the Chinese audience," says Williams.

Jazz, which originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African-American communities, is not as popular in China as other America-initiated musical genres, such as hip-hop. "I can feel the Chinese audience is trying to figure out what's going on," says Williams. "There's this mystique about jazz. They want to know more about it, yet they assume it is played in smoky rooms only."

As proponents of this quintessentially African-American music, Williams and Morrison feel a responsibility to expose Chinese music lovers to more varieties of jazz and jazz played with a high level of musicianship.

"Music is a bridge," emphasizes Morrison, and their motto is "striving to be of service to humanity by promoting international harmony through music". It is printed on their business cards and pops up in their conversations as often as the refrains in one of the old chestnut tunes.

As American musicians, they also want to use their music to communicate with the local Chinese. "We came to play only three days after 9/11 and many Shanghainese expressed their sympathy to us," recalls Morrison. "For that, I'm very grateful."

In 2003, after hearing that Beijing had won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, Morrison decided to do something to express what he and his collaborator felt - he penned a song titled Beijing Olympics Hao Yuing. The "good luck" tune was later submitted to Olympic organizers and was picked as one of the songs to be featured during the Games.

"The message of the song is so positive and it recognizes the international spirit of the Games," says Morrison. The use of guzheng and dizi, both traditional Chinese instruments, added a Chinese vibe to the upbeat samba tempo. In later compositions, the jazz duo, who have released five CDs, including China Skies, have made it a point to "capture the Chinese flavor".

They were back performing in Shanghai last night. The "China Skies" they have explored have enriched their repertoire and, in return, they will paint this sky with splashes of great American music mixed with a few brushes of Chinese color.

(China Daily 11/03/2008 page10)