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Nov 12, 2010

Fest hails 15 years of East-West jazz

by Howard Reich - Chicago Tribune Arts critic
November 12, 2010


Music festivals that last 15 years are as rare as the visionary individuals who create them.
Certainly Chicago bassist-impresario Tatsu Aoki never thought the event he envisioned — the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival — would be around a decade and a half later, with high-profile concerts this weekend and next.
"I've very, very surprised that it has lasted 15 years," says Aoki, with characteristic frankness, of a grand soiree he invented with Chicago vocalist-pianist Yoko Noge and San Francisco saxophonist Francis Wong.
"Several times the financing of the festival was so bad that for a couple moments, I have to tell you, we thought maybe we shouldn't do it anymore," adds Aoki. "I think it's monumental to have the 15th."
Indeed it is, particularly considering the grand form of this year's edition. An event that opened softly with concerts Oct. 16 and 23 reaches a high point with a major concert Friday at Margate Park, on North Marine Drive; a marathon Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, on East Hubbard Street; and a grand finale Nov. 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The expanded schedule was necessitated by all the performers Aoki wanted to gather for the landmark anniversary. And it was made possible by the funding that unexpectedly rolled in, says Aoki, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Toyota, among others. The funding, which Aoki believes was inspired by the milestone anniversary, enabled him and his collaborators to dream big.
Yet considering that Asian-American musicians have contributed to Chicago's jazz since at least the years immediately following World War II, when many migrated from the internment camps to this city, one wonders why it took so long for a festival to take root.
"Twenty-five years ago there was a lot of activity in the Bay Area," says Aoki, citing groundbreaking organizational efforts by artists such as Wong, pianist-bandleader Jon Jang and percussionist-composer Anthony Brown.
"I was a part of their festival for a few years before we started ours. So it took us a while to have the concept imported to Chicago from the Bay Area.
"And when we started this fest 15 years ago at the (long-gone) Bop Shop, I wasn't really sure people in the community would even be interested in this type of thing."
In fact, something significant was astir in Asian-American culture in Chicago at the time. Two other festivals emerged simultaneously: the Asian American Showcase celebrating cinema and Stir Friday Night for comedy. Each marked a 15th anniversary this year, suggesting that the jazz event emerged at "just the right time" for Chicago, as Aoki says.
But the jazz festival always has been much more than just a celebration of a particular ethnicity. For Asian-American jazz — at least Chicago style — has a sound, style and language all its own. Though artists such as Aoki, Noge, saxophonist Jeff Chan and others personalize their approaches, all combine aspects of Asian culture with the idiosyncrasies of Chicago jazz.
Aoki, for instance, brings Japanese instrumentation — such as taiko drums and the shamisen — into jazz-ensemble settings. In effect, traditional folkloric and classical Japanese music merges with avant-garde jazz experimentation in Aoki's best work.
Noge long has been infatuated with Chicago blues, the singer-pianist-composer often featuring veteran Chicago blues musicians in her Jazz Me Blues band.
The result is an often-exotic, daring cross-cultural mix.
But Aoki hastens to point out that a new generation of players is rejuvenating Asian-American music. Artists such as bassist Kurt Schweitz, pianist Kota Ishihara, dancer Dohee Lee and performance artist Miya Masaoka — all appearing on this year's event — are busily expanding the techniques and languages of the idiom.
And yet, in a way, they share a common cause.
"They all contain this idea of the Asian-American experience," says Aoki.
And we, the listeners, are primary beneficiaries.
Here is the complete schedule for this weekend's installment of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival; for additional details, visit aajazz.org.
"Trans-Rooted," 7 p.m. at Margate Park, 4921 N. Marine Drive; free; phone 312-427-1676 or jazzinchicago.org. Presented in partnership with the nonprofit Jazz Institute of Chicago, Aoki's epic work "Trans-Rooted" stands as a follow-up to his similarly ambitious "Rooted: Origins of Now" (2001) and "re: Rooted" (2006). This time, Aoki's ensemble will include a dozen taiko drummers.
"Night In, Night Out: Celebrating 15 Years of Asian American Jazz in Chicago Clubs," 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com. Designed to highlight Asian-American musicians who work Chicago's jazz rooms all year long, the lineup will include the Kurt Schweitz Drexel Project; IS (Improvised Synergy) with Andy Cohn, Kalyan Pathak, Kerry Leung and Jeff Chan; Yoko Noge and Clark Dean Duo; Yoko Noge's Japanesque, featuring Jimmy Burns and Jimmy Ellis; and Asian American Jazz Festival Jam Session.
Also worth catching
George Lewis: A brilliant scholar-musician who wrote the definitive history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, "A Power Stronger Than Itself," Lewis will lead a rare evening of music and conversation featuring the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and scholar Arnold I. Davidson. 7:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St.; $20; 773-702-8080 or artspeaks.uchicago.edu
Patricia Barber and Kenny Werner: The two pianists, each inventive in distinctive ways, unveil a promising collaboration, which will be webcast at pickstaiger.org/webcasts. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; $18; 847-467-4000 or pickstaiger.org
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.


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