Mei Han/Paul Plimley

(Za Discs)

Looking into my mailbox I found a small package that had been sent by Canadian label Za Discs, which up to that point had been totally unknown to me. Here come two surprises, the first (really ugly, this one) being that the Italian Postal (dis)Service had decided to make me fork out five euros, due to...? (For a review copy which I had never asked for? So I'm lucky that not too many labels send me promos!) The nice part of the story being that, upon opening the package, I immediately saw that one of the musicians involved was pianist Paul Plimley. But who was the lady at his side, and what was that strange instrument she was shown playing? ("Improvisations For Zheng And Piano", went the subtitle.)

I think Plimley is a well-known pianist, thanks also to his collaborations such as the ones with bass players Barry Guy and Lisle Ellis, and to his work with the NOW Orchestra, the line-up of which he is a co-founder. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure to listen to Mei Han (the booklet immediately told me what I needed to know about her CV) and to the ancient and noble instrument called Zheng that she plays: to simplify things quite a bit, it looks almost like a harp about 5' long that you play in a horizontal position; provided I counted right it has 25 strings; sometimes to me it sounded quite similar to a harp, but with a range more in the middle-low region; at times I was reminded of an acoustic guitar (during some "bluesy" moments I thought about the man who's the most "oriental-sounding" among all the European improvisers: Hans Reichel), or a harpsichord, or the right hand on a piano playing "stride".

Thirteen tracks in fifty minutes tell of a concentrated, careful breathing. The cover writes about "improvisations", and there is no reason to doubt this, even if sometimes (the opening theme in Terra Mova, which would be appropriate accompanying the opening credits of a film noir; the incredibly precise closing moments of Emptied Diligence; some overlapping melodic phrases on Matter Into Waves) it all sounds almost too incredible. This is the type of improvisation that has deliberately chosen to work within a defined set of parameters, which in my opinion makes this album a lot more "entertaining" (and destined to be played fairly often) than it's usually the case with a lot of CDs of improvised music (where quite often one thinks something like "I should have been there").

Ears that are wide open, interchangeable roles, the players showing a sympathetic approach that appears to testify of a long musical relationship. Quite often the tracks inhabit slow, meditative atmospheres, where sometimes the notes from the upper part of the keyboard reminded me of the meditative side of Muhal Richard Abrams, but there are also very fast moments. Ume is an album which possesses both depth and (relatively speaking) user-friendliness. It could work quite well as an "intelligent background", but it would be a pity to leave it in the background, right?

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2006 | Sept. 9, 2006