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Ultra World X-tet brings East-West synthesis to Old First Concerts

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The Ultra World X-tet is a jazz combo “flavored” with Chinese influences. Yangqin Zhao plays yang ch'in, which is basically the Chinese version of a hammered dulcimer, while Winnie Wong plays the plucked guzheng. Actually, because of the large number of strings on her instrument, she plays two of them, one with Chinese tuning and the other tuned to the Western equal-tempered scale. Group leader Gary Schwantes alternates between saxophones (soprano and tenor) and bamboo flutes of two sizes. These three musicians are then backed by a rhythm section consisting of Doug Ebert on bass and percussionist Surya Prakasha with more than the usual drum-set.

Last night the group made its third appearance in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. It was also my first opportunity to listen to what they had to play and how they played it. The title of the program was Wise Dreams and Fables of the Sky, which was also the title of an extended composition that filled the second half of the evening. However, it was the selections that preceded the intermission that gave the best impression of what could be achieved by the group’s approach to cultural synthesis.

That first half was structured around three traditional Asian tunes all arranged by Schwantes. These alternated with two Western jazz tunes, Schwantes’ own “Southern Comfort” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” also arranged by Schwantes. In spite of the significant differences in instrument qualities, Ultra World X-tet performed with an impressively integrated sound (even if the Chinese instruments relied heavily of the assistance of electronic amplification). When Schwantes played his bamboo flutes, one could appreciate the distinctive qualities of Asian tuning systems; but they were also evident in the Western selections, particularly from Zhao’s yang ch'in contributions.

I was particularly impressed by the chemistry between Schwantes on tenor and Wong on her Western-tuned guzheng in “Lonely Woman.” This was the opening track on Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come album. When this album was released in 1959, Coleman’s avant-garde creds were firmly established; but he also had a keen ear for two-part harmony, which emerged in his alto sax duets with Don Cherry on cornet. Schwantes and Wong threw an entirely new light on that harmonic rhetoric, endowing this iconic piece of jazz history with a fresh sonorous character.

That freshness, unfortunately, never emerged during the second half of the evening. Wise Dreams and Fables of the Sky was an original four-movement composition by Schwantes, whose movements corresponded to the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth books of Homer’s Odyssey. As the program book indicated, each of these books involves a large number of episodes from an epic consisting of 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter (in Homeric Greek) divided into 24 books. Nevertheless, there is a coherence to Schwantes’ selection, since these are the books that involve the wanderings of Odysseus following the sacking of Troy until he washes up alone on the coast of Scherie.

Craig Baldwin provided films projected side-by-side on two screens behind and above the musicians. These supposedly set the literary context for the music being performed. Unfortunately, they did not do this very well. Most of the images seemed to come from old Hollywood films, now in public domain, which had the performers looking more like Hollywood stars than anything even slightly resembling the imagination of the bards who first sang the Homeric verses. Furthermore, because those images were projected in the darkened sanctuary of Old First Church, those of us on audience side could not read the synopsis statements for each of the four books of the Odyssey that Schwantes had used as his point of departure.

The result was some interesting music struggling for attention in the midst of a distracting media hodge-podge, which probably would have sounded even more interesting without having to compete for attention.

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