1) Derek Bailey + Min Xiao-Fen : "Viper" (Avant, 1998) :
I still remember when I was ten years old, my father, Min Ji-Qian - a professor, educator and pipa* master at Nanjing Normal University in China - was teaching one of my classmates. He lent one of his pipas to her, and I immediately got so jealous. Ever since then, I wanted to learn pipa from my father. Seven years later, I passed an important audition with more than 60 other competitors and got a job with the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra. The orchestra sent me to music school to continue strict, full-time training with my father and other pipa masters. Mostly I learned traditional solo tunes and orchestral repertoire. Four years later, at 21, I became the principle pipa soloist. My life was simple - music, music, and more music. Then in 1993, looking for a new challenge, I moved to San Francisco.
My first experience with improvisation occurred during a concert with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in San Francisco. I had just finished playing "Lake Biwa A Full Moon Pure Water Gold", his composition for solo pipa, and was in the middle of playing an ensemble piece with five other musicians including Wadada. Suddenly he nodded, indicating that he wanted me to jam with him. I had never really improvised before, and I didn't know how. I only remember that moment - my hands got stuck and my heart seemed to stop beating. I was completely lost.
I moved to New York City in 1996. Five months later, I played a solo set at the Knitting Factory's Alterknit Room. John Zorn was there. After the performance, he asked me if I might be interested in making a record for his label. He suggested a first recording of duet improvisations with Derek Bailey. Improvisation was a new thing for me, and I didn't really know much about it. I told John I wasn't comfortable improvising - I was afraid. But John encouraged me and gave me a few of Derek's CDs so I could listen and study.
I started listening to Derek's music. I heard sounds that I had never imagined before. In his hands, the guitar sounds metal and abstract. When I listened more closely, I felt sparks and colors in his music - like a Dali or Picasso painting. I even practiced by improvising along with his records. A week later, I called John and told him I would do it.
I met Derek at Clinton Studio and we started recording. I remember that my playing felt stiff at first, but I told myself to watch, listen and try to a have dialog with him and most importantly to follow my feelings. I still remember, during the middle of one track, Derek broke a string. I thought he might stop, but he continued playing, using the broken string to scratch on the frets. The results sounded incredible. Incredibly, our CD, Viper (Avant), was named one of The Wire magazine's "1998 Albums of the Year". Derek and I went on tour playing concerts in Berlin, Graz and other European cities. I learned so much from him. We released a second recording of duets called Flying Dragon (Incus) and Coda magazine listed it as "2003 Album of the Year".
As a traditional musician I was trained not to make changes or play extra notes. It is only now that I play freely, but it takes a lot of experience and practice. I've been lucky to do so many jazz projects and to work so closely with improvisers like Jane Ira Bloom, Ned Rothenberg, Steve Coleman, Billy Martin, Butch Morris, Jason Kao Hwang, Christian Marclay and many others. When I improvise, I feel like I'm creating my own language and music, I'm alive and in touch with my feelings. I still have a lot to learn, but I enjoy being in New York. The freedom here makes my music more creative and colorful.
Min Xiao-Fen (from an AllAboutJazz article)
2) Jason Kao Hwang + Sang Won Park : "Local Lingo" (Euonymus, 2007) :
« Looking back, I also recognized how I responded to various life events emotionally, like one or both my parents. It is this mass of “micro-learning” ingrained into my personality, not Asian scholarship, that defines my cultural self. These realizations generated insights about the shape, sound and phrase of my violin improvisations and compositions. In my sound was evidence of who I am. What defines “non-Western” is complex and nuanced, far beyond simple markers of musicology, like pentatonic scale.
This perspective inspires my collaboration with Sang Won Park, who plays the kayagum, ajeng (Korean zithers) and also, sings in the pansori (Korean opera) style. In 2006 we released our duo CD, Local Lingo (Euonymus), a strong document of the empathic listening we cultivated throughout performances over the past 16 years. Sang Won is an amazing improviser. The spectacular timbres that emanate from both his plucked kayagum and bowed ajeng (with a resined stick), inspired alternate approaches to my violin. I found colors produced by extreme changes in bow pressure and sounding points created bridges to his sound. Corresponding to his deep “vertical” vibrato, I broadened my violin’s vibrato using a full range of wide arm/hand movements to narrow/rapid finger fluctuations, with a rapidity and combination that spoke in our lingo. This allowed the inflections of our phrases to resonate as one. Through expressive intent and intuition, that is our “vibe,” we also developed our own system of intonation. Though not of Western temperament, we stay “in tune.” For my compositions, the notational elements for Local Lingo are distilled to initiate a full and detailed improvisational development ."
Jason Kao Hwang (from an interview with Mike Heffley)
Through the 1990s, violinist Jason Kao Hwang mined an exploration of East Asian music filtered through the improvisatory language of downtown New York. Primarily with his Far East Band—with Sang Won Park on the stringed ajeng and kayagum and Yukio Tsuji on the flutelike shakuhachi, later augmented by Joe Daley's tuba—Hwang created an avant-garde take on the immigrant experience, representing the so-called melting pot of New York City with ingredients that still retain their individual flavors.
Hwang and Park are now continuing their exploration of Eastern improv as a duo, having performed at the 2007 Vision Festival and now with their first duo CD. But where the Far East Band had a cross-cultural feel, Local Lingo is distinctly Asiatic and with more of a smear of abstraction. The opening piece, "Listen, is built around a call-and-response, with Hwang stating a slow melody line and Park repeating it, bowing his strings down to a detuned growl.
"Ari Rang is a traditional Korean song (a populist movement is even pushing for it to be made the national anthem) plaintively sung by Park and used as a springboard for delicate variation. Over the course of the five tracks, the duo displays a beautiful restraint, slowly engaging (and disengaging) themes with a remarkable compatibility. While the different tunings and scales of traditional Eastern music can sound alien to Western ears, here the increasingly global language of joint improvisation bridges the divide.
Kurt Gottschalk (AllAboutJazz)
3) Michihiro Sato + John Zorn : "Ganryu Island" (Tzadik, 1998) :
In 1983 Sato decided to break out of the shamisen milieu and operate more freely when it came to performances and collaborative work, much the same way his mentor Yamada had done. Appearing on jazz and rock circuits he also toured abroad. John Zorn invited him to record an album and they recorded "Ganryu Island" during one day. The recording is an unexpected joy for those who appreciate extended instrumental techniques. Zorn blows forth a near-comprehensive sampling of his outrageous sound vocabulary -- bird calls, pattering, thwacking, and more -- in conjunction with the plucking and strumming of shamisen master. Recorded in 1984, just after Michihiro left the traditional shamisen music community to focus more on using the instrument in improvisational settings, Ganryu Island was originally made available as a limited edition release on the Yukon label. This session of bemused wonderment was out of print until Zorn's label, Tzadik, rereleased it in 1998, with the addition of five outtakes. The great, no-holds-barred improvisation is by no means an inchoate whirl -- indeed, the shamisen's rhythmic presence often provides a steady, but flexible structure for the duo's truly imaginative interaction.
Joslyn Layne (Allmusic)
nb : named after a small island off the coast of Japan where legendary samurai master Miyamoto Musashi defeated Sasaki Kojiro in a duel long ago...
4) Wu Fei : "A distant youth" (Forrest Hill, 2007) :
Wu Fei is a master player of the guzheng, a Chinese string instrument that is more than two thousand years old, and known today mostly as the parent instrument of the Japanese koto. Fei began her musical studies at the age of six in Beijing, later studied composition in Mills College in California, and now splits her time between Beijing and New York. She has collaborated with composers and improvisers such as Alvin Curran, Joelle Leandre, Elliot Sharp, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Ikue Mori, Cecil Taylor and Fred Frith, who featured her in his recordings Eye to Ear II (Tzadik, 2004) and The Happy End Problem (ReR, 2007).
Her debut recording features her original compositions for guzheng and vocal, rooted in the Chinese musical tradition, as well as her contemporary improvisational approach with fellow master improvisers: Fred Frith, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and Norwegian percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken. The latter improvisations are the most striking ones, as they feature the swift and subtle reflexes of Fei and her collaborators, especially Kihlstedt and Frith, who succeed in expanding and abstracting the arsenal of sounds of the guzheng.
Kihlstedt does so beautifully on the opening track "Cloud of Birds," where her sustained touch of the strings triggers a gentle counterpoint approach by Fei. Kihlstedt's wise plucking of the violin strings is a perfect accompaniment for the short vocal piece "Ping Tan." Frith and Kihlstedt begin "Diao Chan" with an unstructured, open improvisation that forces Fei to adapt to Frith's fast, phrase-based percussive approach. Frith leads "Dawn" with economic, evocative guitar lines; and his subtle interaction with Fei and Kihlstedt offers a mysterious cinematic atmosphere. All three are featured on the beautifully nuanced improvisation of "Mukamu."
Frith's affinity for patient and abstract improvisation, his rich vocabulary of guitar sounds, and his adaptability to almost any musical genre are best featured on "Yu Yin" and "For Yuxi," where his guitar sounds like a distorted ancient Chinese instrument. "Nothingness" is a non-idiomatic and thought-provoking improvisation between Fei and Frith, and it's almost impossible to know who produces what sound, as their language has become so close. "Mad Season" features a playful abstraction of a traditional Chinese theme, and Frith challenges Fei for a fast improvisation that leaves behind the original theme. Frith's percussive playing on "Break Away" is answered cleverly by an imaginative Fei. Norbakken, who is featured on one track only, "Hunan," rubs the skins and alternates between rhythms in a way that challenges Fei for a balancing textural answer.
Fei's solo compositions for the guzheng incorporate elements from her Western studies, in the way that she slides and rubs the strings, jumping between what sound like traditional themes to a more adventurous plucking of the strings, or introducing an almost distorted sound of the strings. This is a most original recording by a daring composer and improviser that deserve a wider recognition.
Eyal Hareuveni (AllAboutJazz)
5) Yumiko Tanaka + Ivar Grydeland : "Continental crust" (Sofa, 2005) :
This music was composed and recorded at the venue Bridge in Osaka on April 17th 2004. Bridge is located high above the ground in the middle of the amusement park called Festival Gate - right between slot machines and the big roller coaster. I don't think Festival Gate is Osaka's hot spot, the park is nearly empty, but Bridge is a nice and spacious venue. With relatively small acoustic instruments we tried to fill Bridge with sound and music that we find interesting. Meanwhile, we could see the roller coaster passing by every now and then - we could also hear it, and feel it. The whole building would shake each time it passed by, like a small earthquake. Maybe this wasn't the perfect recording situation, but listening to the music now I feel it gained an identity of it's own. The music on this CD somehow made me think of plate tectonics.
Ivar Grydeland, Oslo, November 2004 (liner notes)
This is a very successful duo improvisation record – lively communication between the musicians, but enough distance between their approaches to generate healthy tension, so that they achieve unanimity it's worth a lot. Norwegian guitarist Ivar Grydeland wields a steel-strung acoustic with a strong ring to it; Japanese Yumiko Tanaka plays her Gidayu shamisen, the ‘fat-neck' lute traditionally accompanying narrators in the puppet theatre. They recorded last year in Osaka , alongside the slot machines and rollercoaster of the Festival Gate amusement park.
Tanaka is very good at patient exploration of a small musical area. She works hard at one idea, refusing to rush off in search of another one, slowly kindling excitement. Often she seems to challenge Grydeland to play less. Grydeland, a fairly busy player, in fact leaves plenty of space and deals out clear musical statements. Both players occasionally prepare their instruments with sticks, bows, etc, and Grydeland introduces basic electronics, maybe and E-bow, into the picture. By “Young Oceanic Crust”, they are both trading bitter-sweet, almost Baroque tones, and when the energy overflows it sounds like a bull in a Chinese music-box shop. Then they settle in to several minutes of bottlenecked rhythm. When it stops, we hear the amusement park in the distance. Several times the rollercoaster adds its menacing rumble to the mix. The last piece starts with a scrabbling of sweeps and harsh scrapes, and suddenly Tanaka's voice launches into a full-blooded Gidayu narration. Whether Grydeland has seen the puppet theatre or not, he reacts well to the passion and drama in Tanaka's delivery.
So, a fresh and intelligent album, and encouraging to anyone who suspects improvisation might be languishing in a rut. These musicians were even enjoying themselves so much in the soundcheck, they tacked it on as a secret track.
Clive Bell (The Wire)
6) Kiku Day + Henry Kaiser : "Zen Kaiju" (Balance Point Acoustics, 2007) :
Berkeley-based experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser has gained a justified reputation for his eclectic tastes and the way that he fuses his influences into an idiosyncratic guitar style. He began playing the guitar after listening to seminal free-improv guitarist Derek Bailey and has a deep knowledge of the Grateful Dead's musical journeys, as well as the 1970s electric-era of Miles Davis, as documented in the three volumes of his Yo Miles! band with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. He also has a keen interest in musical traditions from around the world, as his musical tours to Madagascar and Norway with fellow-guitarist David Lindley testify. Tokyo-born and Copenhagen-based, Kiku Day studied the ji-nashi shakuhachi—the bamboo flute that is so identified with Zen Buddhism in Japan---and later improvisation with Joëlle Léandre and Fred Frith, with whom she recorded his dance piece The Happy End Problem (Fred Records, 2007). She first collaborated with Kaiser on Domo Arigato Derek-Sensei! (Balance Point Acoustics, 2006), his heartfelt tribute to the late Bailey.
The title of this stunning meeting of minds supposedly represents what Day and Kaiser bring to the table. It defines a clash between the meditative, serene and introspective side of Zen, and the reckless, vocal, violent mutation of the Kaiju—which translates to strange beast in Japanese and refers to the generic name for Gojira, the famous Godzilla and extended family of mutated/strange creatures that starred in a 1960s wave of monster films. It is clear that Kaiser is also an expert in that field; all twelve pieces portray vivid meetings of extremes between all sorts of Kaiju in times when they are called to reflect upon their deeds, in a kind of spin on the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic concept.
The most amazing thing about this recording is that both Day and Kaiser are able create a new common ground, one that references the disciplined shakuhachi tradition, but moves onto another plain. In their tight and intimate timbral explorations, Day uses the shakuhachi as a drone instrument, while Kaiser bends and sustains notes indefinitely on guitar. When she slurs or shouts on the bamboo flute, he lightly distorts the sound and squeezes the strings as a metallic percussion instrument. While she investigates microtones and multiphonics he caresses and gently rubs the strings, and when he tries to dictate a vague rhythm she offers sympathetic and subtle dance-like sentences. Kaiser plays in a much more restrained manner than usual, opting for more a precise and subtle extension of Day's language; but such a nuanced approach pays off, since it leaves much more room for the colorful and suggestive sounds of both to linger on.
Day and Kaiser are powerful improvisers with a wealth of ideas and an endless need to open new sonic vistas. This unique recording suggests a new way towards a sonic enlightenment—unconventional, selfless and compassionate as Zen enlightenment, but also a liberating one from our sonic or life conventions and costumes, just as Bailey suggested.
Eyal Hareuveni (All About Jazz)
7) Jin Hi Kim with Elliott Sharp & Henry Kaiser : "Sargeng" (Ear-Rational, 1990) :
Jin Hi Kim is internationally acclaimed as both an innovative komungo (Korean fourth century fretted board zither) virtuoso and for her cross-cultural compositions. Kim has introduced the Korean indigenous komungo for the first time into Western contemporary music scene with her wide array of pioneering compositions for chamber ensemble, orchestra, avant-garde jazz improvisations and multicultural ensembles. She has co-designed the world's only electric komungo : « The literal meaning of sargeng is articulation of attack in reference to the komungo. The komungo is a fourth-century, korean six string board zither played by striking the strings with a bamboo stick. It has six, heavy silk strings and sixteen frets. The variety of playing techniques produce sounds of a very vocal quality with extensive play on microtones and timbres. In the context of this music, Sargeng also means the articulation of an approach to cross-cultural composition and improvisation ».
8) Miya Masaoka + George Lewis : "The usual turmoil and other duets" (Music & Arts, 1998) :
George Lewis records so infrequently as a leader that any new release featuring him on trombone is itself an event. Here, he is featured on trombone in a series of duets with kotoist Miya Masaoka. (Masaoka's koto is a sort of modified Japanese zither.) The results, as expected, are superb, as Lewis and Masaoka negotiate twelve improvised pieces, swerving, interacting, bouncing, and complementing each other in spectacular ways. Lewis is up to his usual bag of tricks, totally dominating his horn with rapid displays of notes bursting forth like shooting stars, extremely precise phrasing, and extended range. Masaoka is a fine dueling partner, stroking her koto in different avenues, jabbing here and there with atonal forays. While the sound quality suffers a bit on the two lengthy live numbers, Lewis fans will nonetheless savor the extended 'bone solos, not to mention the outstanding koto work of Masaoka.
Steve Loewy (Allmusic)
Steve Loewy (Allmusic)