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Views From Chicheng Precipice  
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Internationally-acclaimed for his work with MoonJune artists art-rock juggernaut Moraine (MJR028), and free-jazz provocateurs Iron Kim Style (MJR031), guitarist and composer Dennis Rea has been a key presence on the Pacific Northwest creative music scene for decades.With Views From Chicheng Precipice, his most ambitious release to date, he presents a completely different but equally-compelling facet of his musical personality. Blending striking arrangements of ancient and contemporary themes with sonic experimentation and expansive improvisation, Views from Chicheng Precipice is boldly unorthodox in its choice of instrumentation and treatment of traditional musical material (while remaining warmly respectful of its sources): incorporating techniques such as reharmonization, chromaticism, and free improvisation, and; incoporating noise, effects and amplification. The result is a sonorous and surprising listening experience that goes far beyond typical attempts at "East-West fusion." Rea’s MoonJune solo debut is an heartfelt homage to the music of East Asia, filled with moments of stunning beauty and intrigue. A most unique, compelling work from the brilliant Seattle guitarist.
TRACKSClick on any highlighted track title to listen to individual audio samples, or listen to them all on the player to the right.
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DENNIS REA: electric and resonator guitars, melodica, Naxi jaw harp, kalimba, dan bau (Vietnamese monochord)
GREG CAMPBELL: drums, percussion
JAMES DEJOIE: bass flute, bamboo flute, bass clarinet
STUART DEMPSTER: trombone, conch shell
WILL DOWD: drums, percussion
JOHN FALCONER: shakuhachi
PAUL KIKUCHI: percussion
Track 1 composed by Dennis Rea; tracks 2-5 traditional, arranged by Dennis Rea.
Recorded between 2006 and 2008 in Seattle.
Produced by Dennis Rea.
Executive Producer: Leonardo Pavkovic
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Dennis Rea is an interesting gentleman whether he's trying to beat your brains out in his thunderous work in the mountainously juggernauting Moraine (here) and Iron Kim Style (here) or seducing the inner reaches of mentality with gorgeously wrought relics from distant lands. The guy never settles for an easily grasped gold ring, finding more of value in hidden corners and oblique promontories. Views from the Chicheng Precipice falls squarely in that latter mode.

Flanked by a chamber ensemble of exceptional finesse and beauty, Rea opts for a sedater yet more abstract approach to his six-string work, emulating Eastern modes, timbres, and inflections, drawing as much from Noh and rice paddies as from Tibetan refrains, everything peppered with Korean and Vietnamese overtones. In that, he more than once reaches back to some of the earlier unusual (and not very well known) guitarists like Blonker, Christian Boule, and the unorthodox Guitarists of the Apocalypse (otherwise known as Les 4 Guitaristes de L'Apocalypso, the post-Conventum group) while preserving the comportment of not just the expected koto, dan bau (which he plays here), and other stringed instruments but also biwa, shakuhachi, and mysterious wind axes.

The title cut displays the anarchic elements of King Crimson's Moonchild mid-section and Jamie Muir while it's follower, Tangabata, conflates some of the best old CTI sound (here, especially in Freddie Hubbard) with exceedingly airy swamp-jungle ambiances. Caterina De Ra, in a stunning vocal recitation in Aviariations, shows us what Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk, and Joan LaBarbera should've been doing all along. As you listen, Harold Budd's Pavilion of Dreams will likewise invoked as a comparative, not so much in concordance with Rea's milieu but for the same degree of breathtakingly exquisite craftsmanship and exotica. Thus, given all the aforegoing, I probably needn't mention that Views is releasing on the adventurous and far-reaching MoonJune label, an imprint that's saving progrock from itself…thank God…and the disc is recommended only to those with grandly elevated taste and discernment.

Surely you know someone of that caliber…yourself perhaps?

- Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange

Dennis Rea is a very prolific guitar player. I guess he also plays all possible instruments that at least a little resemble a guitar. Some of his work we already discussed on this site, see the reviews of Morain and Iron Kim Style. His music with with these bands roots clearly into the western fusion and prog, with almost no deviations to Eastern music, regardless of the name Iron Kim Style, that quite unambiguously suggests the opposite.

“Views from Chicheng Precipice” is absolutely a different cake. It seems that this music is made by a completely different man. Somebody, who grew up listening Chinese folk music, and after that took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin. This music is soaked with ancient wisdom, knowledge of forbidden notes and respect for tradition. The magic word here is restraint. The musical tension carefully builds up around a beautiful tune, exotic acoustic instruments and vocal improvisations dominate, creating a mysterious atmosphere somewhere in a gazebo in a Chinese emperor’s garden.

Dennis Rea spent four years of his live in China and Taiwan, playing with the best musicians of this part of the world. In China he is known as a first Western musician who recorded an album for the Chinese State record company.

On “Chicheng” Dennis Rea gives the band an exotic sound by playing such instruments like Naxi jaw harp, melodica, kalimba (a small instrument, also called African piano) and dan bau (Vietnamese monochord).

Besides Dennis, this project is a success due to the collaboration of other wonderful musicians. James Dejoie, Stuart Dempster and John Falconer on wind instruments, Ruth Davidson on cello and Elizabeth Falconer on koto (Japanese string instrument with a very characteristic sound) are very important for the overall sound of the band. Percussion improvisations by Greg Campbell are really astonishing, and vocal parts by Caterina de Re will get your hairs up, I promise.

I will give this astonishing record a 10 from 10 if the music was written by the band itself, instead of using the traditional East Asian melodies.

- Prog Nose

American guitarist and composer Dennis Rea has lived in China and in Taiwan from 1989 and 1993. He has also done numerous concerts and tours in Eastern Asia, introducing modern jazz and experimental music to curious audiences.

We know Dennis Rea from his work with rock band Moraine and with the Iron Kim Style free jazz ensemble. On "Views From Chicheng Precipice" however, we learn to know another side of Dennis Rea. Meet his tribute to the music of the far east.

"Views From Chicheng Precipice" presents 5 beautiful pieces. The first one is composed by Dennis. The other four are adaptations of traditional Taiwanese and Chinese melodies.

This is very nice. It's obviously done with a lot of respect and love for the music of the far east. Each composition / arrangement is instantly identifiable as an eastern piece of music. It's only upon closer listening that one detects that it's actually played on a combination of eastern and western instruments.
This album takes you on a trip. Here are some of my favourite moments:

  • The first piece, 'Three Views From Chicheng Precipice" slowly moves into an almost experimental and free improviation. A great transition. Transcending cultures.
  • The duo of trombone and chinese flute in 'Tangabata'.
  • The nice balance between the percussion and the melody in 'Bague'.

An adventure !

Recommended listening.

- United Mutations

This is meant as the second instalment in a trio of reviews of albums released by one of the most forward-thinking independent labels on the current music scene – New York-based MoonJune Records. As a follow-up to View from Chicheng Precipice, here is another album that many listeners may very well see as nearly unapproachable, but whose authentically progressive nature can hardly be denied.

In spite of China’s venerable musical tradition, very few people outside the ‘Asian studies’ circles are aware the authentic musical heritage of the Far East, unless it is in the most superficial of terms. Mentions of Chinese music might conjure, at least to the uninitiated, memories of the cheesy (when not downright ghastly) ‘sonic wallpaper’ that will accompany a meal in most Chinese restaurants of the Western world. However, I am happy to report that View from Chicheng Precipice – the first recording effort solely credited to Seattle-based guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, a true veteran of the progressive music scene of the US Pacific Northwest – is light years removed from any such kitschy scenario.

Those who are familiar with Rea’s current main projects, the eclectic art-rock of Moraine and the improvisational jazz-rock of Iron Kim Style, will probably find themselves somewhat puzzled by this album – which, on the other hand, provides further proof of the guitarist’s broad horizons and dedication to the pursuit of creative musical avenues. While world music may be all the rage in a some circles, it is nevertheless not easy to find artists that approach the tradition of a country as distant (both literally and metaphorically) as China with such rigorously philological spirit as Rea manages to do – informed by his first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the musical and cultural background of both China and Taiwan, where he spent the years between 1989 and 1993.

Recorded between 2006 and 2008, View from Chicheng Precipice sees the participation of members of both Moraine and Iron Kim Style, as well as other musicians from the Seattle scene, such as Japanese music specialists Elizabeth and John Falconer, and trombone master Stuart Dempster. Running at under 50 minutes, the album features five tracks presenting different facets of the Chinese musical heritage, seen through the eyes of a Western artist in a respectful yet uniquely personal way. Indeed, four out of five numbers (the sole exception being the title-track) are traditional compositions arranged by Rea so as to preserve their spirit even when reinterpreting their form.

Out of those five tracks, the East-West collision of “Days by the Sea” might almost be described as a pop song of sorts (also on account of its markedly shorter running time). Rea’s guitar weaves a tune that, while respectful to the original, incorporates elements of African-American blues, sparring with Alicia Allen’s violin in a stunning dialogue that brought to my mind Rea’s work with Moraine. The title-track, on the other hand, is built around three pentatonic motifs that comprise an original sonic tryptich, with a recurring theme and plenty of scope left for improvisations. The composition was performed by Moraine during their performance at NEARfest 2010, though not many members of the audience were able to grasp its sheer elegance and grace in a live setting. Here the triptych comes across in all its understated power, the seamless flow of the music evoking the beauty of the titular mountain landscape (Qingcheng Mountain is the site of a Daoist sanctuary in China’s Sichuan Province). Rea’s guitar converses smoothly with Allen’s violin, while a drum-led improvisation adds a free-jazz touch to the central part of the composition.

The remaining three numbers are of a distinctly more challenging nature, since each of them develops in a fashion that is definitely less attuned to the Western ear. The 15-minute “Tangabata” and the 10-minute “Bagua” both have their roots in ceremonial music, as borne out by their stately, measured pace. The latter makes use of traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto and the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), supported by solemn yet dramatic percussion work in the creation of a gently meditative mood. “Tangabata”, though a far from accessible piece, might be called the real highlight of the album. While featuring a distinctly Western-flavoured, free-jazz improv section at its very end, most of the composition remains faithful to its ancient origins – a sparse melody of austere beauty, almost suspended in time, made of deep, echoing sounds occasionally brightened by chiming bells. Finally, in “Aviariations on A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (whose gently punning title reflects Rea’s ever-present sense of humour) the Chinese oboe traditionally used in the titular piece is replaced by Caterina De Re’s piercing vocal acrobatics, mimicking birdsong in a performance that brings together contemporary Western academic music and Chinese opera. Rea plays guitar and kalimba, whose sounds almost merge with De Re’s impossibly high notes.

Miles away from any tawdrily commercial ‘world music’ recreations, View from Chicheng Precipice is, as Rea himself puts it, a love letter to the country where he spent four years of his life, an experience that was essential for his development as a musician. A refined, understated listen, it is an album made of subtle contrasts of light and shade, and as such needs to be approached with respect and concentration. The music possesses the delicate, almost brittle beauty of Far Eastern art, in stark contrast with the ‘in-your-face’ nature of much that is fashionable in this day and age. Being such an unabashed labour of love, imbued with profound feelings towards the country and its culture, sets it head and shoulders above the many blatantly contrived releases flooding the current music market. Those who will find themselves intrigued by the album could do much worse than get hold of a copy of Dennis’ book Live at the Forbidden City, a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well-written account of his years in China and Taiwan – and a perfect companion to this disc. A special mention is also deserved by the stunningly minimalistic cover artwork and detailed liner notes – a simple yet classy package for an album that everyone with an interest in world music should check out.

- Progsphere (Review by Raffaella Berry)

Since I seldom provide soundbites and feel a bit guilty about that, here’s something: After hearing Views, I was immediately hungry for more. Actually, I had Chinese food last night and I wasn’t hungry at all afterwards. Got the Empress Chicken. Apparently, the Empress had some weight issues. It was surprisingly good though, which would also describe my reaction to Views From Chicheng Precipice. After two noisy avant-jazz albums (Moraine, Iron Kim Style), guitarist Dennis Rea and a coterie of familiar cohorts (familiar to listeners of Moraine or IKS, that is) artfully and naturally blend eastern (dan bau, bamboo flute) and western (electric guitar, trombone) sounds across five extended instrumentals. The graceful “Kan Hai De Re Zi” says it most succinctly, so you may want to start there. Rea spent several years living and playing in China (in fact, he released a solo album in China way back in 1990), and clearly he “gets” what can be accomplished by mixing the two styles and what might be lost if the eastern spirit is subordinated to noisy experimentation. Which isn’t to say that Views isn’t experimental; the whole thing is an experiment really, but even a strange journey like “Aviariations” is kept within the borders of traditional eastern and modern western art. Recorded between 2006 and 2008, the five pieces presented here benefit from fine collaborators, including the amazing Caterina De Re (kind of a Yoko Ornithologist), trombone/conch shell player Stuart Dempster and every member of Moraine. Typically, these east-meets-west recordings end up with western artists presenting a few trite Oriental themes in their own idiom. Rea is the rare artist who meets the orient on its own turf and infuses it with western avant-garde sensibilities. Of the three Rea-related recordings I’ve heard from Moonjune, Views From Chicheng Precipice is the higher achievement.

- Connolly and Company

The tireless illuminator shines a celestial light from behind the Great Wall.

Old Rudyard would be ashamed, yet impressed, if he had the chance to listen to Dennis Rea's music: rare examples of perfect marriage of such Western invention as free jazz, as far removed from its African roots as can be, and traditional Chinese music, an unusual concoction for non-Eastern ear. But with a common point in the tonal exploration, the twain can meet, indeed, and Rea, having spent quite a time in the Celestial Empire, is a perfect mediator. Or his is a perfect mediator, if you think plectrum that works miracle here, on the guitarist's deepest album to date.

Its five long pieces organically shift from ethereal soundscapes to the fretwork blitz all the while building improvisational edifices on the Chinese and Taiwanese songs, both contemporary, as in the light Crawling King Snake dance of "Days By The Sea", and ancient, like the transparent, funereal "Tangabata" where the woodwind sew the skies to the silky ways. But it's a three-part title piece which leads there down the yellow pentatonic road, adorned with harmonies not intrinsic to the region's musical tradition but getting close in its string flow to the Renaissance-era Gallic folk and Lennon's "Oh My Love", before going Far East via the sharp blues riff. Then, "A Hundred Birds Serenade The Phoenix" sees some larking over its medieval drift, and the closer, "Eight Trigrams", welcomes techno and metal in its thundery, if soft, nucleus. Let yourself be enveloped, too, and the views that Rea offers become panoramic as if you were there.


-Dmitry M. Epstein, dmme.net (Israel)


Dennis Rea's adventurous guitar playing blends modern jazz, creative rock, experimental music, and world musical traditions into an approach that is uniquely his own, embracing haunting lyricism, enigmatic textures, agile improvisation, and the raw dynamism of rock. He has performed on three continents at such venues as the WOMAD Festival, Beijing International Jazz Festival, Sichuan-China International TV Festival, Bumbershoot Arts Festival, Columbia Gorge Amphitheater, and Earshot Jazz Festival. Over the years Dennis has led or been a key contributor to numerous innovative groups, including Moraine, Land, Stackpole, Axolotl, Savant, Earthstar, Identity Crisis, Iron Kim Style, and Ting Bu Dong. He has performed or recorded with such prominent creative musicians as European free jazz legend Han Bennink, Chinese rock megastar Cui Jian, acclaimed French composer Hector Zazou, German electronic music pioneer Klaus Schulze, trombone virtuoso Stuart Dempster, and jazz mainstay John Clayton, as well as members of King Crimson, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Ministry, and the Sun Ra Arkestra. He has collaborated with many of the most important figures in contemporary Chinese music and was one of the first Western musicians to record an album for the state-owned China Record Company. His activities have included film, theater, radio, and modern dance, and he has appeared on more than two-dozen recordings to date. He was a finalist for Best Guitarist in the 2005 Seattle Weekly Music Awards, and won a Golden Ear Award for Best Northwest Outside Jazz Group in 2000 as leader of the improvising quartet Stackpole. He is also an accomplished author whose most recent work is the book Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, a portrait of the emerging Chinese rock and jazz scenes and a chronicle of his musical adventures in the Far East.

Artist's website:

Image: MoonJune Records artists, Dennis Rea.



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