To say guitarist Gary Lucas is having a very busy, non-traditional career isn’t enough. He played behind Captain Beefheart; formed the band Gods and Monsters; wrote the title track for, and performed on, Jeff Buckley’s masterpiece, “Grace”; composed themes for ABC News; wrote and played live new scores for classic films; and collaborated with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Allen Ginsburg, Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill, Lou Reed, John Zorn and Dutch minimalist composer and lutist Jozef van Wissem. To keep up with Lucas’s countless and varied projects requires at least a weekly visit to his website.
In 2003, Lucas released "The Edge of Heaven," which explored mid-20th century Chinese pop music, specifically the songs of Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan, vocalists who were based in Shanghai before World War II and remained musical icons in the region for decades.
The definition of a cultural hybrid, "The Edge of Heaven" was a revelation. Lucas's unique, sophisticated style on guitar, which relies on open tunings, string bending, fingerpicking and bottleneck slide, stripped away the gloss from the music and left its emotional core exposed. Joined on six songs by vocalists Celeste Chong, a TV star in Singapore, and the Austrian singer Gisburg, the album was deeply moving – tenderhearted, romantic and mature; sugary yet never cloying.
Lucas came in contact with Chinese pop when he moved to Taipei to join his father's import business by day and play guitar by night. Chinese popular music, he discovered, had elements of regional folk, U.S. western-swing music, Billie Holiday-style blues and Broadway show tunes. Jewish-American musicians who traveled to China introduced klezmer and swing into the mix.
It’s a mistake to say any recording by Lucas is unexpected, given how much music he explored. (See "Operators Are Standing By: The Essential Gary Lucas 1988-1996" for a sample of his musical wanderlust.) In a sense, his approach on “The Edge of Heaven” wasn’t much different than when he rearranged the music of Wagner, Sun Ra and traditional Jewish music: he looked for a way in that could suit his gifts while respecting the originators.
He dove into the music of Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan and built arrangements based on the pentatonic scales essential to both Chinese pop and American blues. The opening number, "Old Dreams," was a mélange of guitar loops and delicate notes tapped on the strings before opening to a reflective folk tune reminiscent of the music of Appalachia. "Where My Home Is," a solo number for electric slide guitar, sounded like something Muddy Waters might've played while still living in Mississippi. "I Wait for Your Return" was offered as an easy flowing country ballad.
Lucas recorded “The Edge of Heaven” in 2000 with members of Gods and Monsters, including drummer Jonathan Kane and bassist Ernie Brooks. When vocalists Chong or Gisburg entered, the songs became sublime. The smoky-voiced Gisburg was steady and assertive, while Ms. Chong's birdlike vocals effortlessly soared into the upper register. Their complimentary styles brought out the romance in the songs Lucas adapted, so much so that translation of the lyrics to English was unnecessary.
Thus, Gary Lucas's poignant and daring cross-cultural hybrid worked not only as homage to Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan, but as a tribute to the tenderness of the human heart. It retains its effectiveness as cross-cultural music and as an indicator of the sense of adventure inherent in Lucas’s approach to rock, pop and whatever else he’s in the mood to take on.