China Dolls

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in the BAM Opera House and the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien in the Rose Cinemas were resonating right along with guitarist Gary Lucas’s National steel guitar when he performed tunes associated with famous Chinese “song-girls” Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong at BAMcafé last Friday. Hsuan (in the ’30s) and Kwong (in the ’50s) were film stars who have been compared to Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich, respectively. Lucas, however, unleashes their music from its Asian moorings and brings it all back home to the blues.

Harriet Tubman guitarist Brandan Ross, sitting beside me, remarked how Lucas’s open tunings (all songs performed in original keys, guaranteed) nearly transformed his guitar into another instrument altogether. Likewise, Kwong’s sultry alto—they didn’t dub her “the Magnetic Low Voice” for nothing—contrasts wonderfully with Hsuan’s more stereotypical girlish-Chinese-pop timbre. The Austrian singer Gisburg here gave a breathy Dietrichian spin to wispy, melancholy Kwong numbers like “The Wall,” “I Wait for Your Return,” and “The Moon in the Street.” (Chinese singer and actress Celest Chong, scheduled to limn such Hsuan hits as “Songstress on the Edge of Heaven,” was stuck in Singapore, alas, and didn’t make the gig.)

Midcentury Chinese pop music soaked up Western influences, particularly the swing-band sound. Lucas, both alone and accompanied by drummer Jonathan Kane and acoustic bassist Ernie Brooks, added yet another layer of occidental influence by giving almost all these melodramatic melodies an earthy, country-blues bent, and ending most of them with a big, signature harmonic chime. Hsuan went insane during the ’50s, while Kwong specialized in portraying prostitutes, making these populist outsiders a natural for the category-defying Lucas, who has already recorded these elegant hemisphere-crossing sounds for an upcoming release titled The Edge of Heaven. You won’t get much closer to paradise than that. —Richard Gehr

Keeping the Faith

You go hear pianist Cecil Taylor to suspend your disbelief. Not exactly like you do at the cinema, where the lights go down and you temporarily relinquish skepticism for the transport of fantasy. At a Taylor performance you become a believer when you succeed in holding off stupefaction over his real-time inventions for the whole weird trip. Say it’s Thursday, at Tonic, the first evening in his three-night run in duet with British drummer Tony Oxley. In typical Taylor fashion, there’s a wait so long you begin to doubt he’ll ever appear. Finally Taylor glides up to the stage, an hour or so overdue. He’s not dancing or chanting, as he often will, but this isn’t just a perfunctory approach, either: He’s Pound’s Tame Cat, subdued but purring his command with invisible antennae. Meanwhile Oxley, of less magisterial bearing, seems to have stolen onstage.

After your adjustment to Taylor’s presence, there’s your surrender to his fabulistic pianism. Tonight he’s especially keyed up on Ellington, with polyrhythms and prickly blue notes, with alternations of single treble-note calls to his own bass-chord responses. For his part, Oxley’s more a percussionist than a drummer, with equal or greater interest in exploring textures and tones than in keeping time. You begin to see what the club’s murmuring cognoscenti mean when they call Oxley a “colorist,” as he considerately daubs and strokes his way around Taylor’s sonic splashes. Unlike Taylor’s more combative meetings this year with Elvin Jones or Max Roach, his rapport with Oxley suggests the two had called a truce going in. Tonight’s battle is the one being waged against your attention span. After 70 minutes, they’re still playing, and you’re still listening, although concentration’s easy rewards have long passed. Is it over? you wonder, when Taylor settles onto a descending line with a graceful simplicity worthy of Satie. It’s not over: He’s animating the line with fresh motives, 15 minutes worth of them. Is it over, already? Oxley asks by clocking his big cowbell, his accent on the phrase’s final beat. It is. You think of turning to someone in the audience to describe what you’ve heard, but why break the spell and give rise to disbelief? —Michelle Mercer