Plate o’ Shrimp: Wu Fei

Generally, it’s not surprising when I stumble across an artist’s name in multiple contexts. Musicians play in one another’s bands and on one another’s CDs, and they have musical interests that you and I might not associate them with. (Extreme example: Darrell Hall singing on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure.)

Sometimes, though, a connection comes out of nowhere. It’s the cosmic unconsciousness at work.

I mentioned recently that I’d stumbled onto the music of Abigail Washburn, a banjo player who mixes Americana with a basket of Asian influences.

Back in 2010, I’d taken a chance on an sharp-looking CD by Wu Fei, who plays the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument similar to the Japanese koto. The cover caught my eye; the presence of Carla Kihlstedt and Fred Frith is what really sold me.

Not only have these two played together, but they also know one another going quite a ways back. They’re even reuniting for a one-off concert on Oct. 17 in New York.

Yes, it’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness. By the way, it turns out Wu Fei is quite the bluegrass picker.

Wu Fei

Daniel Fuller has written an illuminating piece on Wu Fei for ALARM Press. She openly discusses the self-doubts that hovered around her during her education, including an uncertain first semester at Mills College.

I discovered Wu Fei’s debut CD, A Distant Youth (Forrest Hill, 2007), during a rare visit to Downtown Music Gallery. They had a whole box of them opened up, making it look like a CD they were taking seriously, and because I always try to make a discovery when I visit a store, I took a peek. Fred Frith and Carla Kihlstedt were listed on the back. I’d heard Miya Masaoka’s avant-garde koto work, and the guzheng seemed like it could offer a new take on similar territory. I took the plunge.

What’s surprising is the depth of traditional influence on the album, with lots of harplike sweeps and very Asian motifs. But it’s got the innovative side you’d expect, as well.

“Diao Chan” is very much Frith territory, dark and noisy, with industrial guitar ringing like giant springs dropped, and Kihlstedt spinning darkly lyrical melodies. The closing track, “Break Away,” has a happy-go-lucky air, with lots of bubbly guitar that starts out folky and gets into some catchy if avant-garde twanging.

I have not heard her album Yuan, on Tzadik, which includes other traditional Chinese instruments but also a solo piece for piano. If you’ve got any thoughts on what that one sounds like, feel free to leave a comment below.

Hat tip: Avant Music News.