Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon
Chihping Huang, xiao [Chinese recorder] and dizi [flute] player notes, "Before I joined Sizhukong, I only played the flute the traditional way. The chromatic tones and modulation of keys, which are very common in jazz, were very difficult for me. So when you see me play, you see me change flutes very often, but it's still possible to modulate to another key and beat. You have to cover the holes [using paper] to make the chromatic tones. So there are still many problems I have to face when I play in this western style."
Listening to Huang's mastery of a vast array of recorders and flutes from various parts of China, it is hard to imagine that such difficulties ever existed in the first place. The fluidity of his playing, the lyricism and virtuosity in his improvisation, recalls at times great Latin flautist Dave Valentinor jazz great Herbie Mann.
If the flute brings a Latin feel to the flow of Sizhukong's music, then the erhu [two-stringed fiddle] lends another dimension to the musical palette of the band. Alex Wu, who also plays percussion in the band, says, "Erhu originally came from other countriesnot China, but from middle east Asia. Later the Chinese developed it, so it looks like what you see today. The ancestor of erhu had a fingerboard, and you pressed the strings onto the fingerboard, but now on the modern erhu, you don't need the board; you just press the strings. It sounds very emotional and can express feelings dramatically, and because there is no fingerboard, the vibrations and the emotions you want to express can be stronger."
Wu is another virtuoso on his chosen instrument. His playing can be as soft as a sigh and exude a sobbing melancholy, or it can sound like an imitation of singing or be wild and abrasive. The exact origins of the instrument may be unclear, but it does bear a very strong resemblance to the African ritti, the one-stringed fiddle played by Gambian griot master Juldeh Camara. In Wu's more sweet-toned passages, there is a bluesy swing, which can recall the joyous playing of jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.
Playing in Sizhukong presents a particular difficulty for Wu. "Usually if the erhu is played solo in front of a large traditional Chinese orchestra, the orchestra members will be asked to play softer, so that you can hear the erhu clearly. In Sizhukong there are many loud instruments, which make it difficult sometimes for me to hear myself, so I have to stay close to the monitor to hear," he says. "In jazz, you have to modulate very often, but it's not difficult for erhu to modulate to other keys. I also play many percussion instruments in Sizhukong, so I understand different concepts of rhythm, which I can also apply to erhu."
If Sizhukong's melodies and sound colors are predominantly Chinese, then the harmonies and rhythms are largely western. Drummer Toshi Fujii, who hails from Japan, does much more than keep rhythm in Sizhukong. "Chinese instruments often play sounds from nature," Fujii explains. "With one cymbal, I can play a wind sound, with another I can make a sound like rain or a very Chinese-sounding cymbal. These are a little bit different from traditional jazz cymbals. I use traditional sounds from bamboo block, which has two different pitches."
Fujii's percussive coloring can be as subtle as a breeze, evoking croaking frogs one moment and becoming an utterly exhilarating sound the next, creating a din which would waken a Chinese dancing dragon from the dead. "I didn't used to pay attention to Japanese traditional music, but after I joined Sizhukong, I paid more attention," Fujii says. "I won't use Japanese rhythms, but sometimes I'll use a Japanese percussion instrument."