1. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2 (2:06)
2. Torture Chambers of Commerce (4:42)
3. Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted (3:45)
4. Hydraulic Fracas (8:03)
5. Tunnel at the End of the Light (4:05)
6. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 1 (2:02)
7. Half Remembered Drowning Dream (5:20)
8. Sleepwalking the Dog (6:41)
9. Wanderland Wonderlust (5:31)
10. Cat Hair All Over It (2:10)
11. MBBL (5:17)
12. All Food Comes From China (4:51)
Jon Davis – Chapman Stick, guzheng, Mellotron, ARP 2600
Dennis Rea – electric guitar, resonator guitar
Alicia DeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Randy Doak – drums, percussion
Daniel Barry: trumpet (11)
Because of its geographical location, Seattle, the Emerald City, looks towards Asia as much as it does towards the American continent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find artists that draw their inspiration not only from Western sources, but also from the rich musical tradition of the East. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to review Dennis Rea’s beautiful solo album View from Chicheng Precipice, informed by his four-year experience in China and Taiwan. Now it is the turn of Zhongyu, the quintet formed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Davis (who spent three years in Beijing in the first decade of the 21st century), together with Rea and his fellow Morainians Alicia and James DeJoie, as well as drummer Randy Doak.
With the glut of “progressive” albums released every day, and the high level of quality of this year’s average release, an album such as Zhongyu’s eponymous debut is highly at risk of flying under the radar. A labour of love, many years in the making – as emphasized by the band’s name, meaning “finally” in Mandarin Chinese, Zhongyu deserves much more attention than it has received so far, a few months after its release on NYC-based Moonjune Records. Recorded and mixed by legendary Seattle engineer Steve Fisk, the album is introduced by artwork clearly inspired by Chinese propaganda posters, though interpreted with a humorous twist: the uniformed woman is armed with a guitar, and surrounded by flowers and butterflies in a sort of “make music, not war” context.
As hackneyed as the “East meets West” phrase may be, I believe there is no better description for an album that marries free-jazz improvisation and progressive rock with traditional Chinese music – the lilting sound of the zither-like guzheng (often played by Davis with a bow) elegantly blending with state-of-the-art electronics, gritty guitar, deep-voiced baritone sax, soothing flute and soaring violin. This fusion of apparently very different elements works surprisingly well, weaving atmospheres at the same time ethereal and intense. Zhongyu’s bookends, “Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2” and “All Food Comes From China” (yes, the titles are punny and creative – another bonus point in my book), explore this territory in different ways – the former merging spacey effects with a heady melody produced by guzheng manipulated in various ways, the latter achieving a seamless combination of acoustic, electric and electronic elements.
The 8-minute “Hydraulic Fracas” perfectly embodies the spirit of the album, with the flute’s Eastern flavour contrasted to the electric guitar darkly reverberating in the background. “Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted” pairs guzheng and flute in a delicate, ethereal texture, while in the haunting “Half Remembered Drowning Dream” gentle chimes enhance the sound of the ethnic instrument. “Sleepwalking the Dog” is a textbook example of modern jazz-rock emphasizing ensemble playing rather than individual prowess, particularly the essential synergy between sax and violin. On the other hand, the almost improvisational, free-jazz bent of “Tunnel at the End of Light” reminded me of Rea’s defunct project Iron Kim Style, while Moraine (and King Crimson circa Starless and Bible Black) are evoked in the riveting “Torture Chamber of Commerce”, where melody and dissonance clash and coexist.
Besides Zhongyu’s obvious musical charms, it was a pleasure for me to review an album by a band whose main creative force is a fellow reviewer as well as a gifted musician. I have often read and appreciated Jon Davis’ writings on Exposé magazine, and am glad to have had the opportunity of expressing my opinion on his music. In any case, I count Zhongyu among one of this bumper year’s top releases, highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock – especially those who value the cross-fertilization of Western and Eastern musical traditions.