The Chinese are losing their ability to write Chinese.

Posted: December 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Thoughts On... | Tags: , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

This is not a post bashing the Chinese and saying they are losing their culture. Or maybe it is? Depends on how you take it.

My Dad has been complaining that he is forced to write in English whenever he uses a piece of technology: computers or text-messaging by phone.  He wants to write in his native Chinese so that he can express himself more eloquently and to make it easier for communicating with Mainland Chinese.  As a Hong Kong-born Chinese, he never learned Pin Yin, and only knows Traditional characters.  So he’s elected to learn the input-sequence known as “Jiu Fang” or “Gow Fong” or “Nine Squares”.  Its an older system of chinese word-processing that is stroke-based instead of phonetics-based Pin Yin.  They still use the keyboard we are familiar with, but each button represents a different action.  The majority of overseas Chinese who write Traditional characters are still on this system.

I was explaining to my dad that Mainland Chinese today use PinYin in all their Chinese word processing, from emails to text messaging.  I also related to him how a large majority of my friends are so used to writing Chinese on a keyboard using the Pin Yin system, that it has become challenging for them to pick up a pen and begin writing script chinese characters.  Most savvy Chinese today type as fast as they think, with their fingers stabbing a sequence of buttons on a keyboard without having to think about the phonetics involved in building the pin yin for that character.  Much like how we type in English.

The interesting thing is that while both English and Chinese are using the same QWERTY keyboard, and both are writing primarily from muscle memory, English writers can actually see each button they press become a letter on the screen.  Not so for the Chinese.  A sequence of muscle-memorized punches equals each character.  To me, it is mind-boggling how the mind can process and adapt like that.

To take the boggle-ness a step further, throw in predictive text.  The Pin Yin word processing system has integrated within it a predictive text function, so a person keyboarding Chinese doesn’t even have to finish the sequence of the character to get what he/she wants.  Then add on top of that predictive phrasing.  Just the first few key punches of each character sequence and you have an entire sentence without actually completing even one full character’s sequence.  It really is miraculous watching a person speed-typing Chinese.  We have something kind of like this in English with predictive texting on phones.  My thumb moves over that little number pad at such speed that often people on the other end think I’m messaging them with a Blackberry.

But imagine if us writing the English language were encouraged to type only with predictive-text number pads because it was more efficient, or because we never invented the QWERTY keyboard? What if we were only taught the number-board method from the beginning? Would we be able to actually pick up a pen and physically write English today?

Sure, we would be able to read English. But I think you’ll agree that in general the level of penmanship in our younger generations has deteriorated as a result of earlier and earlier adoption of the keyboard.

The same is happening with the Chinese, except for them, they are adopting to a predictive text, predictive phrase, phonetic, pin yin system to write simplified chinese characters.  As China continues to develop and gain in wealth, Chinese word processing on a keyboard is being introduced into the classroom earlier and earlier.  I would be very interested to see how the next generation of Chinese youth do if asked to produce a hand-written piece of Chinese writing.  How will their minds reverse-engineer the few buttons on the keyboard they would normally press, back into actual pen strokes to form a scripted character? The next generation of English writers who are also used to the keyboard may find it easier because 1) we can phonetically sound out the spelling of each word and 2) we only have 26 letters to remember and choose from.  The Chinese language has thousands of characters to remember.

The act of hand-writing Chinese (and English for that matter too) will be relegated to a mere hobby, or folk-art.

Some questions that arise at this junction are:

a) What other languages/peoples are experiencing the same phenomenon?

b) What are the implications of this change? Is it a good thing or bad?

c) Are there business opportunities found in this situation?

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Music Review: Esperanza Spalding

Posted: December 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

I twittered a couple weeks ago that I had a newfound obsession.  And that obsession’s name is Esperanza Spalding.  I’m not kidding. I’m obsessed. She is my most exciting musical find of the year.

Esperanza Spalding has come out with her second album in late 2008, self-titled Esperanza on Heads Up records (her first album was titled Junjo, released only in the US in 2006).  This Berklee-educated, child musical prodigy, first came on my radar through her association with Emmy-nominated Christian Scott, my 2007 find-of-the-year.  I didn’t actively get a chance to explore her sound until this year, but when the very first notes of this latest album touched my ears, I knew I was hooked.

Esperanza Spalding is like the Alicia Keys of the jazz world, but in saying that I might even be discrediting Esperanza a little.  Her mixed heritage is extremely evident in her music.  Each of her songs draw, in varying degrees, influence from Spanish-Salsa, Blues, Flamenco, R&B, Funk, Bossa Nova, Soul and Jazz.  It makes for an intoxicating combination leaving you wanting a few more notes from the last song while simultaneously excited about what the next song will bring.

Esperanza plays double bass and sings lead vocals, which in my opinion is the perfect combination (there is nothing sexier than a hot girl playing funky bass-lines and singing sweet and tantalizing lyrics on top).   She sings in interchangeably fluent English and Spanish, and shows the diversity of her bass skills from song to song.  Cuerpo Y Alma (the Spanish version of Body and Soul) is Esperanza’s only real jazz standard in this album and is a fantastic entry-point for many mainstream jazz listeners.  This and each successive song succinctly shows the breadth of her skills, from her silky vocals, to the mastery of the bass and scatting, to the ‘sounds simple’ but surprisingly complex syncopation.

In addition to Cuerpo Y Alma, I Adore You, Samba Empreludia and Ponta De Areia are all fantastic modern creations fully rooted in the Latin heritage.  Anyone into Bossa Nova and interested in hearing the latest iterations of Latin Jazz must pay attention here.  Because of these songs, I’ve fallen in love all over again with the magic that is Latin Jazz.

If That’s True, Mela, She Got To You and Love In Time, are delivered as fully-formed, hard-hitting contemporary jazz pieces; no doubt a product of her experiences at Berklee and touring with Joe Lovano.  It is in these songs that you can take your time to explore Esperanza’s work on the bass.  It is an immense pleasure to hear a maturing bassist, one that consciously considers the double bass as a leading instrument.  I think as she continues to produce more songs, we’ll have a chance to hear the bass take more of center stage.

The songs on this album that most excite me are Precious, Fall In, Espera and I Know You Know.  Maybe its because I grew up in a predominantly R&B, Funk and Soul environment, but these songs draw off-of and play derivative-to this realm of music.  What Esperanza does in these songs I can only describe as exciting, mesmerizing and just cool.  I’m a little afraid because if she pushes these types of songs too much, she’ll very quickly build a fan-base that only demands this kind of Nu-Jazz/Neo-Soul.  She too easily can own this style of music.  I say I’m afraid because I enjoy her other styles too much to see her pay less attention in developing her other styles.  Songs like Precious and I Know You Know are so tantalizingly that I can see them entering the top mainstream R&B charts.  There is no denying that the way she wraps up jazz in Blues chords and Soul phrasing gets under my skin.

I cannot even begin to comment about her voice. Love it. Love it. She’s already a star as a vocalist, but to be a master bassist as well puts her into the ranks of Brian McKnight, Chet Baker or Stevie Wonder, where you can’t decide whether you like their voice or their instrumental playing better.

Needless to say, I’m hooked.  I’m not only a convert; I’m now and forevermore an evangelist for Esperanza Spalding.  I wait anxiously for her next release, but until that time comes I’ll be playing Esperanza over and over and over…

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Music Review: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

Posted: December 12th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

One of the wonderful new finds in so many months has been Brian Blade’s newest album, Season of Changes.  Admittedly this is the first of Brian’s albums that I’ve had a chance to get my hands on, but the music he and The Fellowship Band produce is exactly what I would expect from him: music that has a candidly contemporary tempo, delving into deep tonal moods and enriched by phrasing that characterizes the definition of today’s jazz.

Brian has been playing with all the major voices that have shaped the current movement in popular contemporary jazz.  I first noticed Brian Blade when he drummed for Joshua Redman in most of Joshua’s recordings, including the influential Momentum and Freedom in the Groove albums starting in the mid nineties.  I then listened intently as he worked with such rising stars as Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz statesmen such as Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter.  It was almost expectant relief when I finally found an album with Brian’s own name on it. (Note: Brian Blade has 3 other previous albums, Brian Blade Fellowship <1998>, Perceptual <2000>, Friendly Travelers <2007>)

True to his heritage and experience, the music found in Season of Changes has a little bit of everyone he’s played with and admired.  The song Return of the Prodigal Son brings John Coltrane into the twenty-first century, whimsically playing with the fantasy of what John Coltrane would sound like if he had continued to live and perform into the present day.  Omni is another such songs that is set squarely from the Trane-era avant-garde/free jazz heritage, however I feel it pays much homage to Kenny Garrett’s work, another contemporary jazz giant.  Most Precious One (Prodigy), Season of Changes, Stoner Hill and Rubylou’s Lullaby stride straight into the best of the more progressive contemporary jazz coming out from today’s young pioneers.  You can hear Brian’s direction in these songs more clearly as he presents to the listener a clear, contemporary tempo and invites the rest of The Fellowship Band to join in the discussion.  It is in these songs that you hear remnants of Brad Mehldau from Jon Cowherd on piano, and where Kurt Rosenwinkel takes the lead on electric guitar, you get a very clear sense that they’ve gone through these motions before, and they know exactly where they want the sound to go.

Support-Instrument Band Leadership and “Foreground Ambient” Music

The one word that continually enters my mind as I listen to Brian Blade’s music is “Ambient”, but not the ambience we associate with ‘ambient jazz’ or ‘elevator music’.  I feel Brian’s music demands the ambience to take the foreground, requiring the listener to be submerged in the music, versus classic ambience that can be left in the background as an afterthought.  This music is made for sitting in your living room with a 5-speaker surround-sound stereo system and turning it up just a little too loud, so you can be enveloped in the layers of sound.

One reason why I believe Brian can make this type of music is because of the structure of The Fellowship Band.  Unlike other groups where the band leader is often the lead instrument, Brian Blade as the drummer leads from behind and sets a language that is then built upon layer-upon-layer by the other musicians. So when the direction shifts, you hear it as an under-swelling of change in the feel and phraseology of music.  This is in high contrast from lead-instrument-band-leader structures, where the shifts in musical direction are nakedly audible.  With Brian leading from behind and deep underneath, the movement of the music feels more subtle and in concert, hence my feeling of foreground-ambience.  Another analogy I have for the difference between lead-instrument and support-instrument leadership is much like front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive.  Front wheel drive has a faster response rate, acceleration rate and is more agile in its moves, but rear-wheel drive has a smoother acceleration and transition, making for a more pleasant ride.

This foreground-ambience I feel is inherent with many support-instrument band-leadership structures.  Brad Mehldau’s leadership on piano or Dave Holland’s leadership on bass are examples that come to mind.

Discussing music organizational structures just indulges the music & leadership junkies in me.  Regardless how you listen to it, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band has got their equation down right, and will enthrall any jazz listener.  I for one look forward to Brian’s next album.

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