Francis Wong

Great Wall

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Francis Wong has been on the Bay Area scene for a long while as both a sideman and a leader, and also as a composer of originality and quality. This set -- featuring rearrangements of traditional Chinese melodies, a standard or two, and an original -- is one of Wong's most satisfying works. In part this is true because of his sidemen, who include pianist and composer Jon Jang, drummer E.W. Wainwright, bassist Mark Izu, and saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh. Wong's tenor sound was deeply influenced by that of the late Jim Pepper, and his flute playing comes from Eric Dolphy. This does not mean, however, that he sounds like either man; they've just left their marks, that's all. Most successful are the tracks that come from traditional melodies, because in their odd key signatures and time figures, alternate melodies, chromatics, and harmonies can be tendered between instruments. Wong's soloing tends to reflect the tension and ambiguity of the original material while Modirzadeh's focuses on modal and more neutral elements on which scalar considerations might be built. Jang is the bridge, because while a pianist in the style of Abdullah Ibrahim, he is also a dedicated vanguardist who has made his mark with Fred Hoan as well. Jang offers lilting, fragmentary chords that open onto great timbral vistas for the saxophonists to jump off of, particularly on "Autumn Moon Reflected on the Peaceful Lake" and "Alishan." There is an interplay between the three that makes the rhythm section's job seem effortless but is actually quite complex as they move time signatures around to accommodate various accents in the intervallic and modal changes. Great Wall is a compelling listen, and as such it offers us a view of Wong we've never had before -- that of an assured leader and soloist who has opened the tradition of his country's music to the fresh air of jazz's universal spirit of interpretation and revitalization.

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