Pudong, as you probably know, is a little weird. Between Lujiazui and Pudong Airport lie many ordinary streets and neighborhoods, but all of the major sites in east of the river have the same feeling: futuristic, oversized, and alienating. The first time I arrived in the airport it took me fifteen minutes to walk from the plane to immigration, where three of the approximately 50 million counters were staffed and I had to wait another hour. The fact that it was new and clean meant nothing to me. Now that I know what to expect, I find the bizarre-futuristic thing kind of charming, and it feels almost homey, in an anti-homey sort of way. So too do I find strangely pleasant the huge empty plaza next to the Science and Technology museum—populated Sunday by five teenaged skaters, who had brought their own iron rail from somewhere, ten civilians enjoying the afternoon sun, and fifty touts scalping tickets or promoting some kind of “New Xiangyang market” they’ve got over there. There’s something, too, about the eerily purposeless strips of grass, benches, and skinny trees that meander along next to similarly obscure streets, like you could sit down to relax and you’d be as anonymous and placeless as if you were on the moon. Visible from the subway exit that coughs you up in the middle of the empty plaza, and also designed by Paul Andreu, the same firm responsible for Pudong Airport, is the orchid-shaped Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, which hosted Alec Haavik’s Sunday concert, titled “Life, Death, and Everything Else.”
Mahler once said that a symphony should be like the world, and Alec had similarly grand intentions for this concert. He interpreted or used works by Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bach, and Coltrane, as well as his own pieces. The three classical pieces all deal with one of the above issues more or less openly: Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, composed in a Nazi concentration camp, takes a religious and long view, addressing the book of Revelation; Schoenberg’s “String Trio” tells the story of the heart attack which almost killed him in 1946, and takes a programmatic and perhaps more personal view of life and death—Haavik tells us in his exhaustive program notes that “the pivotal event in this musical portrait is the injection which he received directly into his heart”; and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Bach’s famous piece which Alec points out is “often performed at Wedding Ceremonies” is also so familiar it’s hard to think of it as belonging in the heavy company above, but it surely holds something of the commitment to divine life that informed all of Bach’s work. Coltrane’s “Venus”, a stunningly beautiful tune, especially in the context of the album on which it originally appeared, Interstellar Space, is similarly one piece from a deeply spiritual man, and no more about life and death than the rest of his work. “Bessie’s Blues,” which rounded out the first set is only about life and death to the extent that all blues are. So file those under “everything else” I guess.
The five jazz musicians—drummers Chris Trzcynski, and Feng Hao, organist Steinar Nickelsen, pianist/keyboardist Huang Jianyi, and Alec—took considerable risks in performing this music. Though all are flexible musicians, Sunday’s concert, or the first half anyway, wasn’t exactly in their collective wheelhouse. I know that some of them are very strong at reading music, and maybe they all are, but it’s rarely a good sign at a jazz concert to see players looking at charts the entire time. Secondly, they attempted to take advantage of the acoustics in the room by playing unamplified, except for the Organ and Huang’s keyboard. While this was successful at times—a friend remarked the feeling of being really immersed in the sound—more often it was a hindrance. The piano was mostly inaudible, and sometimes the drums drowned out organ and even saxophone. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all was the most successfully conquered: having two drummers in the same band. There were a few moments that got chaotic and muddy, but they never lasted long, and more frequently they had fun with it and took advantage of this unusual opportunity. Feng and Trzcynski had some drum “battles” that were enjoyable, but even better was watching them figure out different orchestrations in the ensemble parts, though perhaps the fun they were having playing together was related to the balance issues.
The concert was a welcome experiment. The material, instrumentation, and venue showed ambition, a chance to hear something different from Alec than what you get at JZ on a Thursday. It was indeed that, and there were many moments in the first part of the program (The unison attack of “Dance of the Fury,” from Quartet for the End of Time for example) that were wholly effective. But it was in the second half of the program, which featured staples of his band’s book, that everyone was comfortable enough to push things and the music jumped a level. My personal favorite of Alec’s tunes, the beautiful “42 Bus” was the strongest performance of the afternoon, featuring a half-chorus “bass solo” from Steinar’s feet, and a cadenza from Alec that was teeming with quotes. These musicians are all accomplished club players and jazz players, and if the JZ-run concert series at the Oriental Arts Center continues to take these kinds of risks, they will soon be able to take fuller advantage of the possibilities this type of venue and this type of material afford, and become just as accomplished concert players.