One of the issues that has fascinated me through my travels to and from China revolves around how the Chinese and Americans have come to understand each other within the dynamic push and pull of cultural forces in our globalized world. One way of looking at this environment is through the sharing of art, and through music. As a distinctly American art form that only recently was re-introduced into the Chinese market, Jazz music provides us with a glimpse into the shifting global dynamics that define modern (or postmodern) Chinese society. Of course, China is not just one big entity—it is comprised of many small, localized identities, and any new cultural phenomenon must adjust to the culture of that place.
My last article chronicled one place where Jazz music has institutionalized itself in Beijing. This series of short pieces on Jazz music in China is intended to casually inform the reader about not just of the spread of a musical idiom, but about the larger dynamics at play and their implications in the cultural, economic, and (I dare say) political realm.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pianist and composer Xia Jia. Xia is a master craftsman of both music and words, taking ample time to ponder his responses to my questions over a cigarette and answering in simple, terse responses that conveyed both the directness of an intellectual and the openness of a practitioner of Eastern philosophy.
As a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and former student of Harold Danko, Xia has been a constant force of progress in the Beijing Jazz scene. He is a prolific composer, arranger and an improviser. I have had the fortune of listening to the evolution of his music since 2009, a collection of compositions and arrangements ranging from reharmonizations of traditional Chinese folk melodies to an arrangement of a Scriabin Concerto for Jazz piano trio.
To Xia, Jazz music represents freedom. “It creates a space for interpretation and personal growth,” he says, with one caveat: that more space in a performance requires more regulation and structure, neither of which musicians who have grown up since the 80s fully understand. For Xia, musicians born after the 1970s have never experienced the hardships that made him and his contemporaries appreciate this hard-won freedom to control the dialogue happening within the medium of music.
Xia’s playing is a liquid mixture of linearity, injected with the blues sensibility of an American. It’s the perfect amalgam of European minimalism, American traditionalism, and Chinese post-modernism. His trio features Japanese drummer Izumi Koga and Xi’an native Zhang Ke on bass; their controlled intensity is worlds apart from the rampant explosiveness of any midtown jam session. There is something immeasurably precise about his playing, a calculated rationality that ducks and weaves through the chord changes of each tune. His music reflects both China’s post-modernity and a heightened sense of minimalism: an attempt to break musical ideas, such as melodies, down into their most basic units and to reinterpret them according to a new harmonic and rhythmic structure. The effect is a feeling of uncertainty in the direction of the tune while still being able to rely on the macro structure of Jazz music to return to order.
Xia Jia’s music means so much more than he is ever willing to admit: he is a major contributor to the creation of a “national aesthetic” — a Chinese Jazz form that has its roots firmly planted in both the American and Chinese tradition.