12 Girls Band
Shanghai (Manhattan Records, 0946 3 78957 2 6, 2007)
Yes, it’s music that’s the stuff of PBS specials and mainstream aspirations. Sure, song titles like "Shining Energy" sound suspiciously new age. Yup, a lot of what’s here wouldn’t sound out of place on a smooth jazz station. But dang it, this is a pleasing, infectiously fun and adventurous album.
The dozen young Chinese ladies who comprise 12 Girls Band possess considerable skill on some of the traditional instruments of their homeland, including dizi (flute), erhu (fiddle), gu zheng (zither), pipa (lute) and yang qin (hammered dulcimer). They play a mix of original compositions, folkloric tunes, pop and jazz standards and classical pieces. And they do it well. Joined by Western guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and percussion, they’re a versatile ensemble who can elegantly rock out ("Glory"), give Bach a respectful goosing ("Concerto for Violin in A Minor") and put a nice twist on the familiar ("Take Five") with grace and style.
Not everything works perfectly, though even their version of "My Heart Will Go On" is far less barf-inducing than the original, thanks to an upbeat segue near the end and a lack of maudlin vocals. And when their strengths are really in evidence, as on the tart "Loulan Girl" and the concert-culled "Freedom," they’re onto something quite enchanting. Not for the sort of hardcore world music purists who might feel shanghaied by Shanghai, the range of styles and undeniably sharp musical chops displayed on the disc will nonetheless find much favor. The fact that it charmed a curmudgeon like me is proof of that.