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Project Sock Retrieval by Jenny Xu’s Friendship

Surrey-born, NYC-based pianist Jenny Xu’s trio Friendship is a leading light in independent modern jazz.

Jenny Xu, Ben Feldman, and Kofi Shepsu released Project Sock Retrieval exclusively on Bandcamp. Check it out:

Pianist Jenny Xu wrote every composition on Project Sock Retrieval.

However, Xu emphasizes that Friendship is not her group. It has no leader; it’s a three-way equal partnership between Ben Feldman on bass, Kofi Shepsu on drums, and herself.

Friendship happened to be the last live group I heard in-person before the pandemic. Xu brought her bandmates to a small community arts centre in March 2020 and they played mostly standards, impeccably.

It was the kind of jazz audience that remembered the words of Tin Pan Alley standards. When Xu discovered this audience knowledge she—being an expert performer at a young age—began to do an impromptu, solo vocal and piano version of each standard before digging into it with the trio. And she knew all the lyrics too!

From then on, I couldn’t wait for her original music to release later this year.

Xu phoned me while she walked through the East River Esplanade in Manhattan. She grew up in Surrey, BC, but now lives in New York.

During the conversation I heard motorcycles and loud pedestrians, and it rained heavily. “I’ve walked in really heavy tropical storms, pounding rain,” Xu says, “but I prefer ‘horror’ weather because in the sunny weather, the parks get really crowded and people don’t have masks on.” That’s dedication!

“Everything was literally written within a month, in November 2018.”

On October 31, 2018, Xu recalls watching movies with Feldman and Shepsu, among other friends. Together, they vented about Xu’s recent breakup.

If you buy this music on Bandcamp, you’ll get a digital package for the project that Xu narrates with text about this breakup. Here’s an example:

“GATHER YOUR TWO MOST TRUSTED COMPANIONS; IT IS TIME TO WAGE WAR.”

Xu’s two companions are the rhythm section of Feldman and Shepsu. That’s why they named the group Friendship.

“I wanted to make a statement.”

Soon after the Halloween hangout, Xu quickly wrote the composition featured on track one and posted it to social media. It’s energetic post-bop that sounds like Chick Corea, the trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette, or Bill Evans’ album Portrait in Jazz.

But after about three minutes, it breaks into a different, slower tempo with a heavier riff. Unusually, it fades out.

Xu continued to write tunes soon after breaking the ice with this first one. In the practice rooms used by her fellow Master in Music degree students, she “rocked out on the piano” and quickly wrote the others within the same month. Xu feels that she was “so prolific in a short period of time […] I had no intentions of making an album. It was really a drive to express the feelings”.

Project Sock Retrieval brings in a fourth member, guitarist Francois Chanvallon, for track two: “Special Spectrum.”

Xu—like me and many of our mutual friends—used to participate on social media in something called Jam of the Week. Xu and Chanvallon met through Jam of the Week when he commented from France under one of her videos. He then showed up, as a new Berklee student, to Xu’s first-year recital there.

Immediately approachable and already an exceptional musician according to Xu, Chanvallon joined in on sessions throughout the following year. Although he moved back to Europe, Friendship scheduled their first recording session so as to include Chanvallon while he remained in New York.

On November 10, 2019 in a Brooklyn studio called Acoustic Recording, Friendship tracked “Special Spectrum” with Chanvallon and also tracked “A Sullen Boy”, the third track on this project. “We didn’t like any of the takes of the other ones enough,” Xu laughs.

Chanvallon crushes his solo on “Special Spectrum” with Kurt Rosenwinkel energy. The tune as a whole reminds me of my favourite tracks from up-and-coming Vancouver drummer and composer Jamie Lee’s album Introspective.

For this session, Xu remembers dressing like a cliche modern jazz musician in dark hues and a leather jacket. But she and the group definitely lightened up for their cover photo! According to her, the piano in Acoustic Recording had been played by Bill Evans but was beautifully maintained.

“A Sullen Boy” is proof of the enduring trio potential of Friendship.

Xu insists that this is her dream group, that the partnership will continue indefinitely, and that they can catch a magical interplay that she calls “riding a thundercloud”. She and I both find this feeling in the powerful drum solo at the end of track three, “A Sullen Boy”.

However, when speaking to the title Project Sock Retrieval, Xu says, “Technically the project failed: I didn’t get the socks back.”

At the time of our cross-continental phone interview, three years had passed since the breakup that launched the project’s story. For those keeping track, that means Xu’s burst of composing in late 2018 already had some hindsight on the relationship.

She asserts, “”I’m just so over it [now]!” but says she had discussed it a lot with Feldman and Shepsu. She found catharsis mostly through bringing together this project. Project Sock Retrieval captured the spirit of sharing their day-to-day lives in dorm rooms with open hearts.

In a smaller studio in Seattle, they finished tracking the project in two days.

I had to note that track four was called “Last Thanksgiving” and that Xu and I were speaking on Thanksgiving Monday in Canada. Xu says about this coincidence:

“It’s been a while since I had a Thanksgiving back home. It’s been since 2016. When I’m back in Vancouver, I say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a New Yorker.’ But when you’re in the other place, you do say where you’re from. It lets me stand out either way!”

Xu’s control of her trio’s arrangement is in peak form on “Last Thanksgiving”. And I feel like I’m in the room with Shepsu’s lively drumming, feeling the floor vibrate and the air circulate around the different cymbals. But the overall sound of the tracks is quite dark, with the bottom end emphasized.

I enjoy that at the end of this track the band let it roll long enough to retain Xu’s exasperated but excited outburst: “THAT WAS THE ONE!”

The fifth and final track, “If Lies Were Flowers”, evokes Robert Glasper’s (or Brad Mehldau’s?) well-known instrumental cover of Radiohead’s song “Everything in its Right Place”. But it doesn’t hold Project Sock Retrieval to be another typical outing with the typical kind of music that educated young jazz instrumentalists play.

Xu and Friendship have a mentor in legendary bassist Buster Williams.

Feldman, who had private lessons with Williams in his academic courseload, brought Xu and Shepsu into the lessons to demonstrate his trio playing.

Feldman is a confident young improviser with a wonderful sound. Xu says that Feldman pays close attention to her piano voicings and the differences between her chords and other pianists’. “He’s such a big piano fan”, she claims. “I play the most uniquely when I play with [him and Shepsu]. They feel for me so hard. I’m always rewinding and discovering moments when we respond to each other.”

Xu contrasts this loving environment with the trends she identifies in contemporary jazz:

“Jazz is steadily growing more and more elite. It isolates people. [We want a] new movement in jazz where it’s all about inclusivity and love, where there’s a story behind [the improvisation] instead of just playing what’s really killing.”

Whether or not you’ve experienced what Xu alludes to here, her group’s intentions are admirable.

The Project Sock Retrieval takeaway

Project Sock Retrieval is a leading light in independent modern jazz that Xu, Feldman, and Shepsu each deserve much credit for. I’ll listen for more and watch for their desired social contributions to the jazz community.

By Will Chernoff

William Ross Chernoff—known as Will to friends and colleagues—is a jazz musician, podcaster, YouTuber, and writer. He records and performs under his own name, William Chernoff.