Year of the Tiger
Baritone saxophonist Fred Ho continues to develop a unique repertoire, reshaping cartoon theme songs, classic rock and pop and writing original compositions for large ensemble. Of those three areas of repertory, his own music sounds the strongest.
The Office of the Arts at Harvard commissioned “Take the Zen Train.” This six-movement piece tips its hat to Duke Ellington after it has refracted his influence through Charles Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Dissonant chords start fires that Ho, Hafez Modirzadeh (tenor sax) and Jim Hobbs (alto sax) stoke with aggressive solos. Lush harmonies break the tension and countermelodies in 11/4 create suspense. Two additional originals effectively employ adult and children’s (!) choirs, but within distinct contexts: One combines Chinese folk music and melodies evoking the Art Ensemble of Chicago; the other is an operatic piece worthy of any strong new-music ensemble.
Ho’s interpretations yield more of a mixed bag. He captures the big-band charge of “The Jonny Quest Theme.” In a tribute to Michael Jackson, “This Place Hotel” and “Bad” both play up the soulful undercurrent that always drove the singer’s music. “Thriller” unfortunately switches out Vincent Price’s original monologue for one about consumer culture, delivered with all the punctuation of a cartoon villain who never met a syllable he couldn’t stretch out. Ho’s take on Jimi Hendrix falls short in trying to transpose the guitarist’s original fury to big band. Concluding “Purple Haze” with a rant about the Matrix doesn’t help either. Here’s hoping his next release leans more on originals.