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By Michael Roberts
The title and subtitle of vibraphonist-composer Chien Chien Lu’s latest release seem contradictory. But if Built In System suggests a project that closely conforms to a blueprint, and Live in New York evokes spontaneity, Lu bridges this theoretical gap with brio. On just her second album as a leader (her self-titled debut arrived in 2020), the Taiwanese native delivers a collection whose smart, complex songs bloom in a concert-style setting at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Hall.
The opener, “Boulanger’s Variation,” epitomizes Lu’s unpredictable approach. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt takes the spotlight first by way of a melancholy introduction whose lingering final note serves as a cue for Lu, drummer Allan Mednard and bassist Richie Goods; they ride in on a rhythm that’s clocklike in its intricacy yet open-ended enough to allow for frequent percussive surprises. Solo segments for Pelt and Lu that follow are initially low-key, but Mednard soon starts pushing the action, and his bandmates respond to his energy with jolts of their own. By the number’s conclusion, subtlety has given way to thrilling urgency.
“Hsiu Chin” takes a similarly serpentine journey, leaping from Goods’ understated plucking to a Lu showcase in which her melodic flurries hit like waves on a rocky shore. “Chun Yi” is a mid-tempo wonder built on Mednard’s creative foundation, while “Special Things” sparkles thanks to Lu’s brightest, most accessible playing.
Pelt’s contributions throughout are consistently vibrant. But he sits out on a pair of trio tracks that bring the talents of his cohorts into sharp relief. “Percussion Song (The Wheel of Fate)” is Lu’s most idiosyncratic offering, and its push-and-pull construction is positively smile-inducing. In contrast, the concluding “Full Moonlight” is a simple, straightforward ballad in which Lu aims for nothing less than beauty. That she scores a bullseye proves the success of her system.