CD Review: The Wide Alley – by Clocked Out

Review by Gerry Koster

This would have to be one of the most unique recordings that I have encountered in recent times – a listening experience that once heard cannot be forgotten. The Wide Alley is an unusual amalgamation of Orient and Occident – the result of more than ten years of collaborations between Chinese composer/percussionist/vocalist Zou Xiangping, and from Australia, percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson and pianist Erik Griswold.

Their collaboration embraces music from the Sichuan Opera tradition, Western classical music, experimental music, folk music traditions, jazz, free improvisation, Chinese classical traditions and story-telling. Their meetings took place in Zou Xiangping’s rapidly modernizing city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China, and the title of the CD best symbolizes this multi-cultural gathering that transcends musical and geographical boundaries.

The Wide Alley or “Kuan Xiangzi” was one of the last remaining old streets in Chengdu, and during their visits Vanessa and Erik witnessed its dismantling and transformation into an old town style, modern shopping lane. Whilst referencing the above genres, the “Kuan Xiangzi” for the musicians in this project became a street where they could gather and play together, to express themselves, their roots and their ideas – an opportunity to share thousands of years of history and create a context for an audience of today.

The Wide Alley features a 10-piece Chinese/Australian ensemble of highly regarded and widely practiced and travelled musicians:

Tian Linping – voice, percussion
Zou Xiangping – voice, percussion
Shi Lei – bamboo flutes
Zhou Yu – erhu
Peter Knight – trumpet
Adrian Sherriff – bass trombone
Erik Griswold – piano, melodica
Robert Davidson – double bass
Vanessa Tomlinson – percussion
Zhong Kaizhi – percussion

Peter and Adrian are no strangers to this kind of musical journeying… Peter’s genre-bending band Way Out West is a hybrid of Vietnamese-African-Jazz sounds, and Adrian’s diverse experiences as a multi-instrumentalist, in particular with the Australian Art Orchestra, has seen him involved in unique projects with Indonesian, Indian and Australian indigenous musics. Robert’s works have been performed by all of Australia’s professional orchestras and many leading ensembles and soloists. He leads the post-classical quintet Topology and has studied with composer Terry Riley and South Indian vocal music in Kerala, India.

Zou Xiangping is Professor in the Composition Department at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and his compositions for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles and Chinese instruments are performed around the world. Tian Lin Ping, recipient of numerous prizes for her interpretations of traditional and contemporary opera styles, is a member of the Chengdu City Traditional Opera Company and performs and tours with the Sichuan Arts Troup. Zhou Yu is Professor in the Chinese Instrument Department at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and is in-demand internationally as an erhu (Chinese violin) soloist. Shi Lei is principal flautist with the Chinese Orchestra at the Sichuan University and Zhong Kaizhi is a Sichuan opera percussionist at the Sichuan Academy of the Arts in Chengdu and both are well versed in traditional and modern forms.

Vanessa and Erik are known both for their innovative Clocked Out Duo – whose unique approach to music-making traverses experimental music, jazz, world music and multi-media using traditional and modified instruments – and for their individual contributions to contemporary music in Australia and internationally. Clocked Out is their ensemble-in-residence at the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University, which produces an annual series of concerts and inter-arts events in Brisbane and tours internationally.

With The Wide Alley, they have created an extraordinary and rich tapestry of sounds – a wholly successful and engrossing fusion of East and West.

‘Erik’s The Way’, the first track on the CD is an apt introduction, erhu and Chinese cymbals open in traditional style to then blend and gently harmonize with bamboo flute, brass and piano, which gives way to a jazz trombone solo, underpinned by piano and featuring brief oriental interjections by trumpet and flute… and then a return to the lilting theme with the ensemble.

By way of contrast, track two features the high-pitched voice of Tin Xiangping with a traditional Chinese song, ‘Picking Begonias’, which is a playful, almost Gilbert and Sullivan-esque song – but Tin’s distinctive voice and vocal stylings, and the accompanying erhu and bamboo flute remind us that we have our feet planted firmly in the Sichuan province.

We are then wending our way through the streets of old Chengdu and taking in the sights with ‘Bicycle Groove’, with the Chinese players conjuring the sounds of a busy city street. This is a feature for Peter’s lyrical trumpet, and Vanessa and Erik’s evocative arrangement of the traditional Chinese tune, with erhu, bamboo flutes and brass closing in the style of an anthem.

A gentle piano introduction leads to what could be ceremonial court music, before twisting into a groover with some unusual percussive singing from the region, quickly accompanied by a swirling melodica, with the double bass then coming in with “the bottom”…and then the full ensemble. This is ‘Di Da Kwa’, or ’12 Month Story’, a song which describes the people’s traditional activities for each month of the year, heartily vocalized by Zou Xiangping after the ensemble section…

And so this fascinating journey continues – including quite stirring settings to music of some poems by the great poet-sage Du Fu – culminating in the challenging and almost cinematic Sichuan Opera Overture, a traditional work arranged by Zou Xiangping and Zhong Kaizhi and conducted by Kaizhi – in Chinese Opera the percussionist is the musical director. It explores a variety of moods and styles with percussive breaks between ensemble and solo passages – a dramatic 16 minute work that features all the players, particularly the percussionists and the diversity of their arsenal. It is a perfect overview of this innovative East-West collaboration.

The liner notes provide English translations of the various songs and poems, and more detailed information about the musicians and the background to this recording.

The Wide Alley is a limited edition release with each CD housed in an individually hand-crafted sleeve. It is available from Clocked Out at:

Gerry Koster is the producer and presenter of Jazz Up Late, ABC Classic FM and ABC Jazz