I have always been impressed with Howard Mandel’s musical choices for the annual Jazz Journalists Association awards gala. This year was no different, with a major awards nod to women in jazz. The show started off with the Leni Stern trio, and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen at the one-third point. (Powerhouse singer Polly Gibbons later delivered a show-stopping set, and the Mimi Jones Quartet rounded out the evening in solid high style.)
I found Min Xiao-Fen to be a very thought provoking case. She is most definitely a virtuoso who has a warm spot in her heart for Thelonious Monk (who doesn’t?). She started out with “Ask Me Now” stating the head with harmonic precision before launching into a cascade of pentatonic improvisations. The rest of her set was taken up with “For Our Children” (Monk/Min), a combination of Monk’s Children’s Song and the Chinese folk song “A Little Cow Herder.”
I have immense appreciation and respect for Ms. Min’s technique, but I was personally more attracted to that part of her Chinese heritage that shone through the second part of her set. Her singing was heartfelt and lovely, and it hushed the actively schmoozing house; a very good sign of her ability to communicate her music. But I found myself wondering is this Chinese flavored jazz, or jazz flavored Chinese music? It is hard to say. Like the banjo or the mandolin, the pipa does not have much sustain, so long notes must be extended through a fast flurry of strums or plucks. Jazz played on both banjo and mandolin can be successful, so perhaps my ear just needs adjustment. (I invite readers to weigh in on this!)
This is fairly uncharted territory; eventually a “sound” for the pipa may be developed, along with a western vernacular of its own. Time will tell. I don’t know if the pipa will ever be a comfortable vehicle for jazz, but Ms. Min is skillfully pushing it in that direction.