Far East Suite
Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire
The Asian American Jazz Orchestra-or percussionist Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra; take your pick-is arguably the flagship ensemble of a surging, politically charged Asian American jazz community. Under Brown's artistic direction, the orchestra brings together such standard bearers of the movement as pianist Jon Jang, saxophonist Francis Wong, and bassist Mark Izu. Their agenda, and subsequently their music, is both celebratory and solemn, as evidenced by Brown's retooling of Ellington-Strayhorn's Far East Suite.
Opening Far East Suite with Modirzadeh's floating ney (a Persian end-blown flute) is the first of several masterful strokes Brown has applied to Ellington and Strayhorn's grand canvas. His meshing of traditional and modern instruments suggests how much Ellington would have benefited from the type of cross-cultural collaborations that are now everyday occurrences. The flutter of Liu's dizi (bamboo flute) and Jim Norton's clarinet on "Bluebird of Delhi" is wonderful programmatic scoring. Traditional reed instruments are also well utilized; Liu's suona cuts through a groundswell of horns on "Blue Pepper," while Modirzadeh's karna sets the scene on "Amad." When heard in tandem with such strong solos as alto saxophonist Melecio Magadaluyo's reading of "Isfahan" and Modirzadeh (on tenor) and Worley's ascent of "Mount Harissa," the integration of the traditional instruments becomes even more impressive, as it reveals new depths of the composers, distillation of Eastern music. Far East Suite was never just pastiche; but, Brown and his colleagues have taken the work a giant step beyond Ellington-Strayhorn's original jazz orchestra parameters, which is a major accomplishment.