As one of the foremost erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin) musicians in the world, Jiebing Chen was well aware of the traditional limitations imposed on her instrument -- for example, that it had rarely been used for improvisation and that its sound had scarcely been heard outside China or the Chinese diaspora. Neither of these facts prevented her from following up work with Shanghai's Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, and Dance Theater Company with experimental recordings with neo-boho banjoist Bela Fleck, jazz fluteman James Newton, and an assortment of other unlikely collaborators.
More recently, the Shanghai-born Chen has found herself teaming up with Chinese-American pianist and composer Jon Jang and legendary drummer Max Roach in the Beijing Trio, an improvisational summit of master musicians that works within and outside of jazz, classical, and Chinese traditions. The concert marks the world premiere of Jang's composition "Sister Cities," which personifies the trio's upcoming stops in several U.S. sister cities of Beijing and Shanghai. Joining Roach, Chen, and Jang on "Sister Cities" are vocalist/ percussionist Eva Tam, Hong Wang on percussion and various Chinese instruments, saxophonist Francis Wong, and Yangchin Zhao on yangchin and Chinese percussion instruments.
The performance will also highlight works from the Beijing Trio's recently released self-titled album, an abstractly beautiful cross-cultural exploration invoking, among other things, Charlie Parker, Bruce Lee, and Michele Kwan. On the album, as in many of his recordings over the past five decades, Roach breathes life into his kit, coaxing not just complex rhythms, but individual tones and musical notes from his drums. Chen's otherworldly erhu solos conjure images of falling water and haunting vistas. Jang is both the metaphorical and physical anchor for the two other musicians; as an Asian-American composer he bridges the cultural span between Roach and Chen while his eloquent phrasings on the piano provide a fleeting backbone around which all three improvise.
The Beijing Trio performs Friday at 8 p.m. at the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is $22-32; call 392-4400.