It's difficult to imagine Bamboo Groove being released by anyone but Peter Liu.

Vocalist Peter Liu with bassist and Bamboo Groove recording engineer Normand Glaude. ©2014 Brett Delmage
Vocalist Peter Liu with bassist and Bamboo Groove recording engineer Normand Glaude. ©2014 Brett Delmage
The Ottawa jazz vocalist has put so much of himself – his Chinese heritage, his love of traditional jazz standards, and his emotional connection to the music – into the new CD. Even the title reflects his favourite plant.

He'll debut it on Friday, in a concert at the NAC Fourth Stage which will also feature Ottawa jazz musicians with whom he has been performing this music for the last three years, and whom he says were indispensable to the sound.

On the CD, ten tracks are from the Great American Songbook. But the other three, while sung in a similar style, are in Mandarin and Cantonese. The theme song from a Chinese movie, a folk song from Taiwan, and the intro to a romantic TV drama from Hong Kong: each of them is a song Liu has loved for decades, and each has been “jazzified” for the album.

What the English and Chinese songs have in common, Liu says, is how well they convey emotion, and how they speak to “not only the importance, but the power of love in our lives and the complications that can come from that. How difficult the feeling of yearning can be, and how beautiful it can be as well, and also some difficulties with that. I'm always drawn to songs that have stronger emotional content.”

But counterbalanced by the modern jazz feel of Ottawa pianist Peter Hum, who arranged all the pieces on the album. Hum “has a very strong modern jazz sensibility and I'm coming from a more traditional [jazz] perspective. For this CD one of the challenges was to blend those two approaches to jazz, and to produce something that's both creative and also melodic and harmonic.”

And to keep the CD's approach “cohesive”, he said, so that there wasn't a jarring feeling when the vocals switched into another language.

Growing up in two worlds

Liu grew up in the New York City area. Both his parents were from China, and he grew up “definitely in two worlds and fully in two worlds”, North American and traditional Chinese. That bi-cultural upbringing made it natural to incorporate both in his music, he said.

When he was 16, he spent a year in Taiwan, substantially improving his ability to speak Mandarin, and learning to “understand my heritage and my cultural background more deeply.” In that year, he also encountered two of the Chinese songs included on the CD: “Gan Lan Shu” and “Shanghai Tan”.

“Gan Lan Shu” was “originally a folksong, and was a huge hit in the 70s. It's all about a person who basically wanders the world trying to find a sense of belonging and not quite finding it, and all of the wonderful things that they see along the way on this journey. ... It reflects where I'm at musically, where I really want to journey and explore.”

“Shanghai Tan” was the title theme for a TV show based in Hong Kong, a romantic drama which was “insanely popular at the time, in the mid-80s. We decided to take it into all kinds of new places. It originally was a pop-romantic ballad, in 4/4 time, and Peter [Hum] put it to 3/4 and [gave] it a really interesting arrangement. I think the melody is totally recognizable but the feel is very different. But it's very exciting and much more energetic than the original.”

The third Chinese song on the album may be more familiar to Canadian audiences: it's “A Love Before Time”, the theme song from the 2000 hit film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The song stuck with Liu.

“I grew up on kung-fu movies – I don't even know how many I've seen over the years – but I have to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was my absolute favourite of all of them. And the music was a big part of that for me. I guess the theme song was always very haunting for me.”

Singing in three very different languages

Liu said he had been told by several people who are not Asian themselves “that they found those songs particularly interesting, and kind of fascinating, even though they didn't understand what was being sung. Because I think these songs are coming from a very different tradition than the jazz standards, so I think there's something very unusual in taking a pop song or a folk song that's coming from an Asian cultural perspective and reinventing it.”

And those from an Asian background have told him “it was greatly moving and really interesting to hear a very familiar song reinterpreted” and to hear songs sung in their own language.

Or, in fact two languages: “Shanghai Tan” is in Cantonese, while the other two are in Mandarin. While both languages share the common Chinese written language, in spoken form they're “completely different”.

It was “very challenging” to sing in Cantonese, Liu said, partly because his pronunciation was much better, if not absolutely fluent, in Mandarin. “Cantonese I really had to work on. And I have a cousin who is from Hong Kong and he was giving me a lot of coaching on it.”

When heard side by side, Cantonese is much more guttural and forceful than Mandarin, he said: rather like the difference between German or Dutch, and English. “There's a harshness to it. And Mandarin is definitely more of a flowing, more musical sound.”

In fact, in some ways, it's easier to sing in Mandarin than in English, Liu said, “because you don't have to deal with words ending in consonants, which change the sound of the word as you're singing it. So you can just sing it with a very clear full sound without having to change it at the end. With Cantonese it's more complicated because some of the words have unusual endings and they have sounds that aren't even in the English language, so that took a lot more work.

All Chinese languages are tonal, meaning that how speakers inflect the final syllable, whether their voice drops or rises, determines the meaning of the word. In Mandarin, there are four different tones and in Cantonese six.

But “the fortunate thing is that you don't really have to pay attention to those tones when you're actually singing,” Liu said. “You just have to make sure the pronunciation is correct. Because as you're singing the melody, the tone is going up or down based on the melody, rather than the tone of the word. It doesn't really matter too much. If it's pronounced correctly the listener will understand the message because of context.”

An Asian-fusion jazz band

Bamboo Groove began in May, 2011, as a one-time project for Asian Heritage Month. Liu put together a quartet of jazz musicians who were all of Asian descent – himself, Hum, bassist Adrian Cho, and Toronto drummer Tim Shia – to play jazz standards. Their aim was to to promote awareness of jazz in Ottawa's Asian community, to help support the arts in Ottawa's Chinatown, and to celebrate Asian-Canadian heritage.

Bamboo Groove (photo by Shaughnessy Photography)
Bamboo Groove (photo by Shaughnessy Photography)
Their show at the Shanghai Restaurant was a big hit: “We sold out the first night.”

The group continued to perform under the name Bamboo Groove a few times a year, mostly in Chinese or Korean restaurants around Ottawa.

Liu said he picked the name, for the group and for the CD title, because “bamboo has been my favourite plant since I was very young. What I love about it is how it's very beautiful, but it's also fast-growing, it's flexible, it's very strong, and it's really adaptable. I thought it would be a really good symbol for our band, and the sound that I want to aspire to – one that continually evolves and grows.”

In spring 2013, Cho left the group because he didn't want to participate in recording a CD, Liu said; he was replaced by Mark Fraser for four tracks on the CD, and permanently by Normand Glaude. At the same time, they added clarinetist Scott Poll, who had been a regular guest on their gigs. While no longer an all-Asian band, Liu said, “you could call us an Asian fusion band”.

He emphasized that the CD represented a “whole group sound, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Hum is an Ottawa pianist and composer, with one jazz CD to his credit, and also writes about jazz for the Ottawa Citizen. Shia leads the Toronto jazz group, The Worst Pop Band Ever, and has played festivals and shows across North America and Asia. Glaude is known both as a bassist accompanying many local jazz vocalists and guitarists, and for engineering and producing local jazz albums (including Bamboo Groove). Poll is a long-time member of the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces, who has performed on clarinet before royalty as well with local jazz orchestras and small groups.

Several songs on the album feature a vocal-clarinet duet. Liu said he's always loved the clarinet sound, having studied it for six years while he was in school. “I wasn't terribly good at it myself, but going through that training really helped me appreciate the sound of that instrument and the capabilities of it. I find that the clarinet sound is very clear and very lyrical. I think it fits very well with vocals.”

Taking musical liberties

The CD distills the very best of what the group has been playing in its live shows, Liu said, while balancing groove, style, and tempos. The process of recording has also allowed the interpretations to evolve, he said: “by the time I got near to the end of the project and I listened to the earlier versions I just felt that there was much more I could do with those songs.”

He said he picked most of the material, but Peter Hum had a few suggestions as well. “Some of the songs that we've chosen are pretty unusual songs, but I think he felt they were more inspiring for him to take more liberties with.”

For example, Hum changed the time signature of “A Secret Love” from 4/4 to 5/4, altered some of the chords, and gave the song a “real modern feel. I would say the same for “East of the Sun”: ... the melody is recognizable but the chords have really changed a lot and the approach to the song is quite modern.”

One jazz standard Liu really wanted to include was “A Secret Love”, because “that was one of the first songs I ever learnt once I started learning jazz. It's a song that both lyrically and musically just carries a lot of meaning for me and a lot of emotional connection.”

Liu started planning the CD in early 2013, when he felt the group had enough material and he had “the strength and skills to carry it off”. They originally only recorded a six-song EP, but “that experience was so uplifting and encouraging that I was really thrilled by it so I decided I wanted to keep going. So we arranged the second session earlier this year.”

Both clinical psychology and jazz improvisation are in the moment

In his professional life, Liu is a clinical psychologist in private practice, where he deals with human emotions on a daily basis.

“Probably the commonality between my clinical work and the music that I play is that I think of both as conversations. What's great about jazz is, because it's largely improvised, that the chance to really create something that's very meaningful and in the moment in jazz is very similar to a very intense meaningful verbal conversation with somebody, like what happens in my practice. And so I feel like that level of intensity and emotional connection is a thread that binds both of those.”

About eight years ago, he started listening more to jazz, and “feeling inspired to pursue it and to start singing along to the things that I was listening to. I actually sang a lot of karaoke before – I really enjoyed singing karaoke with friends – and some people had said that they thought my voice would be good for jazz. I decided to keep it pursuing it and then the more I sang and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to pursue it.”

The turning point was attending the JazzWorks Jazz Camp in August, 2008, where Liu encountered “the brilliant and intense” Toronto vocalist Christine Duncan. He also met his jazz vocal coach, Sharada Banman, there, and has worked with her ever since.

That camp was his first experience of full-on jazz teaching, he said. “It was incredibly intensive and a really wonderful experience for somebody that was very new to jazz.” He's returned three more times, most recently in 2014.

"Singing is one of the most therapeutic things I do in my life"

Since 2008, Liu has gradually increased the number of shows he's performed in the Ottawa area, leading his own duos, trios, and quartets, as well as singing in a local classical choir. Launching the CD is “definitely a milestone in my musical career”, he said and he hoped it will launch him into “a new professional path in my music.”

As a replacement or an adjunct career?

“Some people have asked me that and some of my clients have been a little bit worried [laughs], but I have to say that I really love my career so I don't think I'll ever give up being a psychologist. I really like working with people and helping folks and learning and growing along the way.

“I wouldn't really want to stop that. However, I've had to decrease the amount of time I've been doing that as the music has been growing. So really music has been ... I see it as a second career. I've been nurturing it a lot and I've had to cut down my practice to make some room for that.”

It's become an important part of his life. “Singing is one of the most therapeutic things I do in my life, and I mean that in every way. I feel that it's good for physical health, I think it's good for for emotional health, and I definitely think it's good for brain health or mental health. I feel that, no matter what kind of day I've had, when I sing I always feel better.

“I think the process of learning music and growing and expanding my limits and my boundaries has been really healthy for my brain and for my sense of purpose in the world. Since I was very young, I've always had a really strong sense of mortality and as I've been getting older that's been increasing. In my clinical work, I hear lots of stories about very traumatic things that happen to people as well, and I have a sense that I don't want to waste my time here. I want to be able to live as fully as possible and music really helps me do that.”

Taking risks and looking far ahead

Liu said that ticket sales were going well for Friday's show at the NAC Fourth Stage. The group will perform the “all of the songs from the CD at the show, plus a few more that we've been working on.”

It was a risk to pick a more expensive venue like the Fourth Stage, he said, but its sound and lighting quality and central location made it best as a listening experience for the audience.

“But I've always been OK with risks,” he laughed. “You can't have adventure without risks, right?

He said he hoped the CD could take the group to new places. “My dream is to be able to perform in Asia, perhaps for a jazz festival over there. I know that's quite ambitious, but I like to dream big – that's the adventurous part of me. Who knows if that can happen, but I think that would be wonderful. But really anything that would come out of this CD performance, wherever it takes us, whether it's local or whether it's further away, is going to be a fun thing to do.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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