I haven’t enjoyed any album of straight-ahead jazz this year more than I’ve enjoyed Chien Chien Lu’s Built In System. It’s an astonishingly assured sophomore release from a rising star of jazz and the vibraphone in particular. She’s one of the main reasons that the vibes are apparently the hip instrument these days – at least that’s what I’ve read, and on the strength of this album I have no reason to doubt it.
Lu was born in Taiwan, and studied jazz vibraphone at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where she received a Master’s in Jazz Studies. She met trumpeter Jeremy Pelt while continuing her studies at the Banff Jazz Residency and was invited to play in his band and on three of his recordings. That the two formed a tight musical bond is evident throughout Built In System, and that bond extends to bassist Richie Goods and drummer Allan Mednard. The three of them, in particular Lu and bassist Goods, form a tight, grooving, sometimes propulsive rhythm section for Pelt’s knockout soloing.
That groove jumps off the grooves from the first moments of the opening track “Boulanger’s Variation.” Honestly when I first spun this one I thought for a moment I was hearing one of those soulful CTI records from the ’70s featuring the likes of Milt Jackson and Freddie Hubbard.
Of course Lu steps out front and carries the tune and solos plenty, too, and her playing is delightful to behold.
The album’s title refers to a three-part way of moving through the world that Lu has devised and which she calls her “built-in system.” She composed every piece on the album, drawing from those three themes: “fate — what happens to us is predetermined and we are meant to cross paths with certain people and experience certain things; relocating to new communities — an incredibly enriching experience, as it exposes us to new ideas, customs and ways of life; and the importance of cultural inheritance — that our unique perspectives are not lost in the ever-changing world.”
There isn’t a weak track here. It moves from the complex opener to the melodic “”Hsiu Chin” with Pelt’s horn ranging from warm invitation to pointed octave leaps; through the dreamy “Träumerei” to the mysterious and intriguing “Chun Yi”; to the cool “Special Things” and the tour deforce of “Percussion Song (The Wheel of Fate).” The joyous “Just Listen” is prelude to the lush, romantic closer, the trio piece “Full Moonlight.”
Built In System (Live from New York) is the second entry in Giant Step’s new series Modern Masters and New Horizons. It was recorded at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Hall as part of Giant Step Arts’ Open Recording Session/Concert series. The vibe is live but there’s very little audience sound – I picked up some enthusiastic expostulations during “Just Listen.” It’s an excellent recording. I love how you can hear the very taps of Lu’s mallets, particularly during her dazzling solo runs.
This one will be on frequent rotation for quite some time. A highly recommended performance of contemporary jazz from a rising star and her veteran ensemble.
(Giant Step Arts, 2023)