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Apr 5, 2011

Chicago's jazz artists play searing music for Japan

April 2, 2011  By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune Arts critic

Link to the Article


Moments of hope sometimes emerge from tragedy, which is what happened Friday night at the Chicago Cultural Center.

For starters, a standing-room-only audience jammed the Cultural Center's sprawling Sidney R. Yates Gallery for a "Japanese Earthquake Relief Fundraiser." With minimum suggested donations starting at $50, the event was poised to generate significant financial help for a traumatized nation.

But there was also something beyond money at work here, with several of Chicago's most accomplished jazz artists – many of them Japanese and Japanese-American – producing music of heightened intensity and purpose. The audience responded enthusiastically, making the three-hour marathon an emotionally charged civic event, as well as a concert of distinction (even if the over-reverberant room posed acoustical challenges).

"Today, all of us are Japanese," Gov. Pat Quinn told the crowd, before yielding the podium to Sen. Richard Durbin and other speakers.

The most moving moments, however, came from the musicians, particularly when Chicago singer-pianist Yoko Noge led her thunderous Japanesque ensemble in sounds that fearlessly merged East and West, ancient and modern, simple and sophisticated.

Seated at an upright piano (couldn't the Cultural Center have provided a grand?), Noge dug deeply into the keys while sighing and crying and howling her original lyrics. Her voice remains a unique phenomenon in Chicago jazz, its bent-note phrases somehow fusing the folkloric music of Japan with the nuances of Chicago blues.

If Noge's sometimes throaty, sometimes piercing vocals had no other accompaniment than her lyrical pianism, she would have made an impact. But her Japanesque ensemble – staffed by veteran Chicago jazz and blues instrumentalists – built dramatically on her work.

Any band that features South Side adventurers Jimmy Ellis, Mwata Bowden and Edward Wilkerson, Jr., on saxophones is going to rattle the windows. Add to the mix blues guitarist Jimmy Burns, incendiary trombonist Bill McFarland, two Japanese taiko drummers and bassist Tatsu Aoki playing shamisen (an age-old Japanese plucked instrument), and you have the makings of a potential cross-cultural collision.

But these forces generally cohered, mostly because the performers listened to each other closely. When Noge sang, the jazz saxophonists stripped their lines to the essence, befitting the less-is-more aesthetic that courses through Noge's work. Once Noge yielded the floor to her horns, however, the saxophonists cut loose, braying as freely as if they were working an avant-garde jazz room.

Yoko turned in some of her most compelling work in "Tsunami," an original tune she had penned in response to the great Asian onslaught of 2004. Her lyrics expressed terror and wonder at a cataclysmic natural event, while the band surged alongside her.

But the evening was not Noge's alone. Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer reveled in boogie and blues, while soprano saxophonist Clark Dean (Noge's husband) played exuberant phrases in joyous duets. Even the repertoire they chose – classics by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and others – radiated optimism.

The Tsukasa Taiko Kids shook the room, their high-pitched chants and slammed beats on taiko drums carrying forth sacred Japanese musical traditions.

Earlier in the evening, classical violinist Yuki Hashimori played a Vitali Chaconne poetically, though the echo in the room helped neither her nor the members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, who played next.

In a conventional concert, such amplification troubles would have been quite objectionable. On this occasion, however, everyone seemed to focus on the positive, in that so much life-affirming music was being created for such a noble cause.

Two more upcoming fundraisers:

"Benefit Concert for Japan," 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; donations accepted; 847-467-4000 or pickstaiger.org.

"Benefit for Japan," 7 to 11 p.m. April 12 at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $30 suggested donation; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.



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