September 2006

Xu Fengxia & Joe Fonda
at the Guelph Jazz Festival
September 10, 2006Guelph Youth Music Centre Guelph
An Improvisational Feast
by Tom Sekowski with photo by Roger Humbert
More than any other year that I can recall, this year at the Guelph Jazz Festival was one marked by an explosion of the duo format. First, Bob Ostertag and Pierre Hébert, then Bill Dixon and Joëlle Léandre, György Szabados and Vladimir Tarasov, Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman. The last day of the festival was marked by another spectacular duo — that of Chinese zither (guzheng) player Xu Fengxia and bassist Joe Fonda. Much in the way bassist Peter Kowald tooted the horn for Tuvan throat singer Sainkho Namchylak, he has done the same for Xu Fengxia, who has participated in Kowald’s Global Village band.

Without blowing things out of proportion, I must admit the combination of zither and bass might sound a tad unusual, but once you hear the duo in action, all your misconceptions are quickly left by the wayside. For those who haven’t seen the guzheng, it’s a rather large 21-string instrument that is played as it lies flat on the surface of a table in front of the player. It is stroked and caressed with the use of fingers and fingernails alone (though sticks can be used as well). Its sound is reminiscent of a higher pitched, duller-sounding guitar. It resembles a tougher harp in certain moments as well.

Xu was a revelation in her ability to expose the beauty of her instrument to the audience — plucking madly away one minute, while gently caressing the strings the next. Joe Fonda didn’t slow down for a minute either. While Xu was busy weaving intricate passages on the guzheng, Fonda plucked away on the strings of his bass like someone possessed. One of the more interesting moments during their performance came when Fonda placed a fold-out from the Guelph Festival’s booklet between the strings of his bass. As he plucked away on the upper part of the bass, the strings reverberated, the booklet flapped its wings and the sound was less heavy, almost on the thud-less side. When both players broke out in harmonious singing, their voices seemed to be intertwined, though Fonda’s more hearty set of vocals overpowered Xu’s in certain moments. This was an improvisational feast in the truest sense of that word.
Xu Fengxia (2005)
Here’s hoping impatiently that next year’s line-up at Guelph will be half as exciting as this year’s. Artistic Director Ajay Heble and the crew that organize the festival deserve a hearty round of applause from all in attendance. Bravo!
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Tom Sekowski
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Roger Humbert
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