Monday, December 7, 2009

Jon Jang Sextet "Two Flowers on a Stem"

Jon Jang - piano
David Murray - tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
James Newton - flute
Santi Debriano - bass, daluo (Chinese large gong)
Billy Hart - drums
Chen Jiebing - erhu


01. Two Flowers On A Stem [04:12]
02. Meditations On Integration [18:21]
03. Eleanor Bumpurs [05:22]
04. The Procession/Woman Shaman Of Alishan [11:19]
05. Variation On A Sorrow Song Of Mengjiang Nu [15:56]
06. Butterfly Lovers Song [07:09]

Recorded in NYC on June 08, 09 & 11, 1995
Soul Note 121253-2, 1996.


Pianist/composer Jon Jang has long created music that combines advanced jazz with aspects of his Chinese heritage. For this superb disc of inside/outside music, Jang utilizes a sextet also featuring the remarkable flutist James Newton, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, bassist Santi Debriano, drummer Billy Hart, and Chen Jiebing on a haunting cello-like instrument called the erhu. Strong passionate melodies give way to straight-ahead jamming, free sections, and other themes. As with Charles Mingus (one of his influences), Jang's pieces are sometimes quite political, and his music often unfolds like an episodic suite. Performing Mingus' "Meditations on Integration," four Jang originals, and "Butterfly Lovers Song," the sextet's many colorful voices somehow blend together as one in service to the consistently powerful music. This highly recommended set deserves and rewards repeated listenings.(Review by Scott Yanow)

The story of the making of "Two Flowers on a Stem":
On a warm evening in April,1994. I had return to my home in San Francisco from Berkeley where I spent another long and exhausting day of rehearsal for the dramatic adaption of Maxine Hong Kingston’s book,"The Woman Warrior" which was to be premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I was in the final stage of refining the score for "The Woman Warrior." I was not content with the score because it contained too many Chinese traditional folk songs. I wanted more of my music. Like a filmmaker who temporarily selects pre-existing source music during pre-production period before the composer becomes part of the process, the idea was for me to use pre-existing music to give the director a sense of the musical feeling and then later replace the pre-existing source music with my original music. However, the director became very attached to the pre-existing music, particularly "Kang Ding Love Song" which was used during a romantic scene of two young lovers.

Beginning with the first three pitches (3-5-6) of The "Kang Ding Love Song" as a point of departure, another melody began to "blossom" in me like a new petal from the same stem and I began to compose a new melody. Somewhere in the process, I had just remembered that I left my score in a bag inside the trunk of my car which was parked three blocks away. After retrieving the score, I was half a block away from my home when I heard a voice shouting,"Give me your money!" I turned around and there were two young Chinese men with a gun facing me. I gave them all the money in my wallet. Unfortunately, they saw my gold wedding ring which was custom made in Hawaii and removed it from my finger. After telling Joyce, my wife, about the mugging and filing a police report, I finish composing the A section of "Two Flowers on a Stem," which became the final version for the play.

The dramatic adaption of "The Woman Warrior" was staged at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Huntington Theatre in Boston and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles duirng 1994-95. In December 1994 one month before the Los Angeles premiere, Joyce and I learned that we could not conceive a biological child. Our dream of having a son, who would have been named James after my father, was not going to happen. Reality sadly sank in. I suddenly realized that I became the last male member to carry the Jang family name. I began to raise questions to myself: "Who am I? What am I doing here?"

With "The Woman Warrior" production running in Los Angeles the next month, I took the opportunity to visit Steve and Ella Leong, who were close friends of my father. After my father died, it had been almost forty years since I remember them.. On June 30, 1956, two commerical airplane carrying 128 passengers which collided and crashed over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. There were no survivors. My father, Dr. James Joseph Jang, was one of the victims. My mother was left to single-handedly raise my older brother Dana, myself and my sister Deeana who was not yet born. "Uncle" Steve told me the story about the Glendale Cemetery denying funeral services to my family for my father because he was Chinese American - even though he had been burned to ashes. Two years later, my mother suffered a nervous breakdown and had to take electroshock treatment in Belmont, California. Despite these hardships, my mother survived and courageously raised three children by herself. "Two Flowers on a Stem" is about the lily that can endure in the swamp.

During the 90s, I had been listening to Chinese folk songs, from both northern and southern regions of China. When I was creating "Two Flowers on a Stem," I composed a melody for the erhu that had characteristis very similar to Chinese folk songs, but I placed it in my own context. I wanted to compose a love song that would allow conflict to become tenderness, to express a desire for beauty and strength. When I heard Jiebing Chen’s erhu performance in the fall of 1994, it was the voice penetrating the heart of tragedy and transforming it into the embodiment of beauty. There is a strong connection in the relationship between tragedy and beauty that can be traced to the works by early composers for the erhu. Hua Yan-Jun (aka "Blind" Abing) began his early life as an orphan and lived in a life of poverty. When he began to lose his sight, he composed "Moon Reflected Over the Autumn Lake" as a way to remember the beauty of life.

"Two Flowers on a Stem" was fated for Jiebing Chen. I added a bridge which featured the somber and melancholy sound of the inside string or the lower D string. In June 1995, Jiebing and I joined James Newton, David Murray, Santi Debriano and Billy Hart to record "Two Flowers on a Stem" under the name of the Jon Jang Sextet in New York for Soul Note (121253-2), a record company based in Milano, Italy. We recorded "Two Flowers on a Stem" in one take. It was one of the greatest gifts given to me by these artists and the Executive Producer Flavio Bonandrini. Frank Tafuri, a record producer and founder of Omnitone, was also present at this historic session.

Three months later in September, my daughter was born in China.My wife and I adopted her in January 1996. Xiao Mei, the Chinese name given to her by the orphanage, means "small beauty." My wife and I also named our daughter, Mika, which means "beautiful scent" in Japanese. One of the personal meanings behind "Two Flowers on a Stem" is about adopting Chinese music in my musical language and a daughter from China in my life. This period in my life showed how tragedy can turn into beauty, "when sorrow turns to joy" -Jon Jang(