Pulsar Li and Eric Bishop, playing alternative jazz

October 1, 2006
Instrument as voice: the music of Li, left, Lord, and Bishop melds jazz, Latin, rock, and pop

Instrument as voice: the music of Li, left, Lord, and Bishop melds jazz, Latin, rock, and pop. Megan Morr

When seniors Pulsar Li and Eric Bishop perform together on stage, they seldom make eye contact. Both remain fixated on their instruments-Li with his hands flying back and forth on the keyboard and Bishop with drumsticks sweeping seamlessly between cymbals and snare. When their eyes do meet, it's usually to signal a change. The style of their music can shift in a matter of seconds from, say, jazz to Latin to rock.

That kind of effortless transition has earned The Pulsar Triyo, the alternative-jazz group that Li and Bishop started in the fall of 2004, the reputation of being a cut above the standard college rock band.

In a review of the band's performance in the 2004 Duke vs. UNC Battle of the Bands, Durham's Independent Weekly said that the band easily won the competition "because, when magic happens, it's just impossible to beat."

That magic began to come together when Li, a classically trained pianist, met Bishop at auditions for the Duke Jazz Ensemble their freshman year. A mutual interest in an obscure band, The Bad Plus--a coincidence Li likens to "finding someone with the same birthday"--led to after-practice jam sessions.

The following fall, Li, a music and chemistry major, and Bishop, a public-policy major, met bassist Zach Kilgore '06 and launched the trio. (Kilgore has since been replaced by Adam Lord '03, who met Bishop at Duke while subbing in the pit during a production of West Side Story.)

Heavily influenced by their backgrounds in both music theory and jazz, Li, who attended the Manhattan School of Music at age fifteen, and Bishop, an active jazz-band participant in high school, began to reinvent modern rock songs using inspiration from some of their favorite artists, including Radiohead and Brad Mehldau.

One song, a remix of the Britney Spears single "Toxic," showcases the trio's ability to tease out the possibilities of even the most commercial music. "It creates two levels of listening," Li says. You can "think of it as a new piece, or you can look at it as a cover of a song and trace back how we came up with it."

Li's composing skills have earned him one of the university's Benenson Awards, monetary prizes given to students who show promise in an artistic field. Li has used his award to help pay for the use of a professional recording studio for the band's upcoming eleven-track CD.

Riding a trend that is becoming commonplace among independent bands, members of Triyo have also embraced technology to help market their music (visit www.thepulsartriyo.com).

Triyo has also enlisted the services of Dick Hodgin, the former producer for Hootie & the Blowfish. His support gives the band some optimism as the release of their first CD draws closer.

"Maybe it just becomes a souvenir of our time together. Or maybe we send it to a label, and they pick us up, and we go on tour next summer," Bishop says, laughing. "That's the thing. You don't know where it's going to go."