CD REVIEW: Stephan Schultze Large ensemble featuring Wu Wei - Erratic Wish Machine 

Stephan Schultze Large ensemble featuring Wu Wei - Erratic Wish Machine 
(WhyPlayJazz RS017CD Review by Peter Slavid)

This album features Wu Wei on the Chinese instrument the “sheng”. The sheng is a bunch of pipes, anything up to 36 of them, with holes in. The pipes are positioned vertically over a sort of cup. From the side of the cup comes a mouthpiece that you blow into (or suck out of - it works both ways like a harmonica). Each pipe has a reed, made of metal, that vibrates to produce sound when a finger hole on the pipe is covered. So the sheng – which dates back to 1100BC - was the instrument that inspired both the mouth organ and the accordion in the west.

Wu Wei is one of the leading sheng virtuosi, now based in Berlin, and has appeared as soloist with many of the world’s leading classical orchestras. But this is a different proposition altogether. The Stephan Schultze Large Ensemble is a very fine occasional big-band. I enjoyed their last album (Run, Challenge Records 2011) and this new album is definitely worth the wait.

Recorded during a month long residency in Shanghai, and using the bulk of the fine musicians from that earlier album, this is an interesting attempt to mix the two cultures.

It starts out sounding quite conventional – a big band, with what sounds like a harmonica out front. The second track is even more straight-ahead, finishing up with a nice moody piano solo. And then things get very different.

The title track then opens with the sound of the sheng playing a series of dissonant chords over squawks and broken beats from the band. After a period of calm, the sheng (now sounding like a full accordion) takes the lead over some complex riffs. Track 4 starts with a very Chinese sound from the Jinghu (a two stringed instrument) with the band building behind it into some Django Bates style rhythms.

Overall I wouldn’t describe this as a genuine mix of cultures – it’s really an exciting modern big-band with a bit of added exoticism from unusual Chinese instruments. But as modern big-bands go this is a very fine one. The album is far from uniform but the best bits make this well worthwhile.

Peter Slavid is the presenter of the ukazz radio show, available via Mixcloud

LINK: Review: Wu Wei at Jazzdor Berlin 2013

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