Yuwen Peng: Putting a Spin on Sizhukong
Yuwen Peng doesn't like resting on her laurels. The pianist, composer and founder of Taiwanese sextet Sizhukong had already taken a bold step in integrating Western instruments, African music and jazz harmonies with traditional Taiwanese and Chinese folk songs on Sizhukong's self-titled debut recording in 2007. The follow-up to that, Paper Eagle (Sizhukong Records, 2009), followed a very similar pattern, though the refinement in the band's sound was notable.
More of the same wouldn't have been a total surprise; after all, Peng had been working for more than half a dozen years on her musical concept for Sizhukong. However, Peng is clearly a curious soul, and rather than repeat a winning formula, she chose instead to head into personally uncharted musical territory by jazzing up Sizhukong. For the first time, electronic keyboards and electric guitar color the music, bringing the band's sound a little closer to the jazz fusion of Herbie Hancocka major influence on Peng.
Sizhukong's new direction impressed Sony, which signed the band and released its third CD, Spin, in 2012. Many of Sizhukong's trademarks are present, from Peng's jazz-inspired piano and the blend of traditional Chinese and Western instruments. Nevertheless, this Sizhukong is a different beast altogethermore contemporary and more adventurous than before. The band's first foray into North America in March was a great success, vindicating Peng's new musical direction for the band she started in 2005 upon returning from Berklee to her native Taiwan.
All About Jazz: Yuwen, recently you performed a special project with Sizhukong. Could you tell us what that was about, please?
That was a concert we did at the end of September, where we incorporated an aboriginal singer, whose name is Ilid Kaolo, from the Amei aboriginal Taiwanese tribe. We started learning the songs and dance from her last year. Together with Ilid and me, there were two more composers; one is a jazz violinist called Stephane Hwang and then a pianist/songwriter, also graduated from Berklee, called Chialun Yu. The four of us would meet every month and learn something from Ilid, so we could put her tribal songs and dance into our compositions.
We have given two concerts this year with Sizhukong, a six-piece band, as you know, the singer Ilid, a string quartet, and Chialun also played percussion and some piano parts. For the September concert, we added Hwa Jou Shieh, the guitarist on the Spin album.
AAJ: That sounds like an exciting lineup.
YP: It was fun, but too much work for me [laughs].
AAJ: What was the makeup of the string quartet?
YP: Two violins, one viola and one cello.
AAJ: That sounds like a beautiful combination. Yuwen, after Paper Eagle it would have been easy to repeat such a successful formula, but with Spin you've taken a new direction. Tell us a little about the evolution of Sizhukong's music in the last couple of years.
YP: After Paper Eagle, I thought I had to try new ways to put Chinese music together with modern music. I didn't want to repeat Paper Eagle. At that time, in 2010, we thought about adding an electric sound. We tried it in concert. We tried most of the songs recorded in the new album, Spin, in concert two years ago already. We used electric guitar, electric bass and keyboards. We even used some loops in the concert, surround-sound effects.
AAJ: What is Hwa Jou Shieh's background?
YP: He's a professional guitarist playing various kinds of concerts and recording sessions. He studied guitar and jazz in Taiwan.
AAJ: He brings an interesting new element to Sizhukong. Is the electric-guitar part of Sizhukong's live sound these days?
YP: He played in the 2010 concert, but he is a guest of the band. We don't always include him in our concerts.
AAJ: Another change since Paper Eagle is the absence of bassist Martjin Vanbuel. Has he left Sizhukong?
YP: Yeah. He left because he's too busy with his own band.
AAJ: So who plays bass in concert?
YP: Toshi [Fujii].
AAJ: But he can't play bass and drums at once, so if he plays bass, who is on drums?
YP: We have different drummers playing with us. Right now we have a female drummer called Guang Liang Lin. Sometimes we play without a drummer, too.
AAJ: Doesn't that greatly affect the dynamics of the band? Does it create difficulties, or does it in some way create a new type of freedom?
YP: It does affect the dynamics of the band. With a drummer, we get the full sound of Sizhukong, and the jazz feel is more obvious. But when playing without a drummer, it creates a more chamber-music type of sound, and the subtleties and timbre of the Chinese instruments and the piano can stand out more. On about half of the songs, Alex would play percussion, so we can still have the drive of the groove. Also, the lineup without a drummer sounds better when playing in a small venue.
AAJ: Another significant change is the reduced role of Chihling Chen's mandolin and lute. Why was that?
YP: We used more electronic effects, and so we used more electric guitar than acoustic ones. We did try some effects on the ruan, but it didn't work too well.
AAJ: There seems to be greater improvisation on Spin than before. Is that also true in concert?
YP: Yeah, I think so. The arrangements allow more jazzy improvisation.
AAJ: Can you talk a little about the song "To Rain," which is very striking.
YP: The song is based on a Hakka folk song. Hakka is one of the most important languages in Taiwan. Mandarin is the common language, and then we have so-called Taiwanese language, which is similar to Fujian from China. Then there is Hakka, which is also from China, but the Hakka people came to Taiwan later than the Fujian people. I am Hakka, too.
I first arranged the song for a Hakka jazz music festival, and we kept developing it. For the arrangements, you were right in your review- -I do listen to the Yellowjackets and [guitarist] Pat Metheny [laughs]. You really have a sharp ear. I was like, What? You know the music better than I do [laughs]. The melody is still pentatonic, and I just kept it simple in one key. I wanted the bridge to have a contrast, so I put some key changes in the background. The bridge melody [sings melody] is actually very commonly used in Hakka music. Sometimes musicians would just play this line behind a singer. So for me it's a very special line that I wanted to put with this Hakka song.
AAJ: There's a subtle use of electronics on "Fengyang 3.0." Is the use of electronics and loops an area you want to explore more?
YP: Hmm. I was thinking about it [laughs]. Now I'm not so sure. It's really another world, and you can go very deeply into it. It can change the whole sound of the music. Having listened to more and more electronic music, I realized that it's really not my thing to get into too far. We can maybe add some electronic sounds to apply on top of the acoustic sounds, but simply focusing on the technology doesn't seem to be my way.
AAJ: Another great track from Spin is "Bona Bona," inspired by bassist Richard Bona. Tell us about your appreciation of him.
YP: He's a great songwriter, as everybody knows. His songs have very sweet melodies. The rhythms and grooves are very natural. His songs sound very simple but very touching to me. I took some part of his guitar arrangement and changed it a little bit. I wanted to write a simple song that expresses the beauty of his music and expresses my admiration for his musicality. I just found out that Chihping [Huang] played the bawoo, and it was so beautiful, so I thought I had to write something for the bawoo, too, but Richard Bona was in my mind.
AAJ: Could you imagine Richard Bona in Sizhukong?
YP: Wow! Will you introduce him to me?
AAJ: Next time I'm down in Cameroon, I'll put a word in.
YP: That would be great [laughs]. Oh my goodness.
AAJ: Sizhukong recently signed to Sony, on which Spin was released. How did that move come about, and how has it benefitted the band?
YP: We asked a friend who runs an agency to help us with the marketing side of things, for both the aboriginal production and for the new CD release, and they connected us to Sony, who thought it would be a good idea to release our CD. Larger record companies like Sony have a good system to sell the product. They also have good relations with the media. They have a good reputation, so when people hear the name they say, "Oh, Sony, that's good." But they put us in the instrumental/jazz department, and of course it's not the sort of popular music that they will invest heavily in. They're not doing big things with us, but already it's a kind of progression to sign with Sony.
AAJ: In March 2012, Sizhukong toured in Canada. How was that experience?
YP: This year Canadian Music Week (CMW) had its first jazz festival part, and a friend of ours who works for Canadian Music introduced us to them. I think there were around 20 jazz groups playing. It was CMW's first time to have jazz there. I think originally it's more like a business market for popular or indie music. We played three gigs there in different clubs. Each time, there were three groups, each playing one set one after another. It was a very nice experience because it was our first time in North America, and we didn't know what would happen. But I think the audiences liked it, and the musicians from other groups and other countries loved it [laughs], so we were quite happy about that.
AAJ: Do you think there are more opportunities now for Sizhukong to play abroad?
YP: I think so. The Cultural Department of Taiwan, whose office is in New York, is trying to bring us to the States next year. I hope this will work. They are working on it.
AAJ: Is China a good market for Sizhukong? It seems like a lot of bands are touring there these days.
YP: Yeah. We've been to China three times already, and most of the audiences really liked what we are doing. People are talking about it on the internet. We need a proper agent there because to work in China you really need connections. That's true everywhere, but you have to find a way to break in.
AAJ: What are your and Sizhukong's plans in the near future?
YP: We'll try to play more abroad. As bandleader, I have to take care of almost every part of the band business: the music, the compositions, the administration and the marketing. Too much! [Laughs.] If I keep doing a new music production every year, as I've done for the last five years, it will take most of my time and energy, which is actually good for me as a musician, but right now there's still a lot I need to do besides the music. I think this is a time when we should organize what we already have. For example, although we are practicing all the time, I feel the band should make some progress in its performance skills. And on the marketing side, we should make a really good press kit. Whenever we have the chance, we should look better and sound better.
Maybe we need to take a year to digest what we have done and then to think what the next step is. Hopefully, we can bring our music to many new countries.
All Photos: Courtesy of Sizhukong