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Growing up in Shanghai, Le Zhang expected to be a Chinese pop singer; instead, she found herself traveling an international odyssey that found her intertwining her home country’s folk canon with that of American jazz —- the standard songbook as well as the avant-garde —- as on her alluring self-released album When Will the Moon Be Clean and Bright?. Ahead of her performance tonight at Twins Jazz, the up-and-coming vocalist, now living in New York after four years’ study at the New England Conservatory, spoke to Arts Desk about her musical experiences in both her native and adoptive cultures, separately and together.
Washington City Paper: You started your vocal training as a teenager. Were you trained as a classical singer?
Le Zhang: No. I did sing in a children’s choir for almost seven years, and that included a lot of classical music, but I was trained as just a normal pop singer. At that time I really didn’t know jazz, but training as I did helped me hear a lot of the masters and practice my voice.
WCP: How did you come to learn jazz?
LZ: I was offered a gig in 2000, when I was 22, at the Hilton Shanghai with a group of jazz musicians. At the beginning I just learned two jazz standards: “(I Love You for) Sentimental Reasons” and “Autumn Leaves.” (laughs) I sang it just as I would a pop song, but the general manager of the hotel heard me, and said, “You know, I think you should really learn jazz. I think you would like it.” And I said, “OK, then I will try it.” Then I started to really learn all these songs, and I was very lucky to work with a lot of great international jazz musicians who taught me a lot about the music, including the repertoire.
WCP: What is the jazz scene like in Shanghai?
LZ: The jazz scene there is one of the best in Asia, except maybe for Japan, and definitely the best in China. We have a lot of national jazz musicians in town, and you can definitely collaborate with a lot of people. A lot of them came from the States—-they went to all the really good schools here, or they lived in New York for a while, and they just wanted a change so they went to Asia and to Shanghai. As a musician you get a chances to perform.
WCP: What about your current work, fusing Chinese music with jazz. Is that a substantial movement in Shanghai, or in China in general?
LZ: There are a few different artists that are rearranging Chinese folk songs; in 2004, a producer named John Huie produced an album for EMI Asia called Shanghai Jazz, and it was a very big success in all the Asian countries, because he arranged all the famous 1920s and ’30s movie songs in a jazz large ensemble setting. A lot of people really enjoy that; it’s just another way to reinterpret all these songs that everybody is familiar with.
WCP: What’s unique about your approach?
LZ: Well, first of all, I did my undergrad at the New England Conservatory, which allowed me to study with a lot of really great musicians including Dominique Eade, John McNeil, and Ran Blake. Especially Ran —- I was his teaching assistant for two years. NEC gives you a lot of chance to learn not only a lot of jazz, but a lot of contemporary music; and they are not trying so hard to teach you to be a so-called “jazz musician,” but to find your own voice as a musician. I think my approach to the folk songs is a little bit different than what you’d hear in China, because I am going a little more avant-garde. Ran Blake is one of my biggest influences there; also I studied with Theo Bleckmann, who has been a real mentor and inspiration.
I also compose my own music, and collaborate with people I met in Boston and New York. Some of the lyrics are old poetry, and some are Buddhist sutras. A lot of different combinations that become something very personal relating to my life and how I feel about music. I just try to hear all the possibilities of being yourself.
WCP: Do you still return regularly to Shanghai?
LZ: Yeah, I go back there at least once a year. I perform a lot —- people are curious; they want to hear me. They actually offer me gigs. Although it’s funny; when I am in a bar or a club in Shanghai, they usually want me to do jazz standards. But when I’m in a concert, in a hall, then I can choose my favorite musicians to collaborate with and do what I’ve been doing here.
WCP: If a Chinese person came to your performance at Twins, would he/she hear things that were immediately recognizable as part of China’s musical traditions?
LZ: Yes, of course. There are a couple of songs on my CD —- “3 Years,” “Wandering Singer” —- these songs are so famous in Mandarin-speaking countries, in Taiwan and Malaysia as well as China. If a Chinese person came to my gig, they could sing a long with me. (laughs.) And I’ve experienced that! I don’t want to make music that makes people say, “She’s only making music for herself.”
Once I produce a piece, the first thing I do is ask my parents to listen. If they enjoy it, then I know that it’s good. (laughs.) I hate to hear my parents say, “I don’t understand! This is too avant-garde for us!” Because I do believe that no matter how academic we can be, at the end of the day it’s just sharing feelings. I want to write complicated arrangements, but I never want it to sound so difficult that it distances people.
WCP: Is it more difficult for American audiences to gain a foothold?
LZ: Actually, I find American audiences in general to be very open-minded, and I appreciate that very much. They never try to judge things too quickly. They are very interested in other cultures, and always want to know “OK, what is the meaning? Where does this come from? What is the relationship between this song and that song?” So a little bit of introduction about the piece we are going to play is really appreciated, and they really enjoy it.