April 2000

Label Watch: Asian Improv Records

When pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong founded their own record label in 1987, San Francisco-based Asian Improv Records, they were taking the plunge into the entrepreneurial world with the same basic motivation as most independent musicians—to sidestep the mainstream gatekeepers and get their music heard. “We weren’t getting acknowledged by existing record labels,” says Wong, who serves as AIR’s director and chief spokesman, “so in order to have a voice and be recognized by folks who would be interested in the message that we carried in our work, we created this company.”

But what made AIR different from the outset was the message. Jang, pianist Glenn Horiuchi and saxophonist Fred Ho, the first musicians recorded on the label, played jazz inspired by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Duke Ellington, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other giants of hard bop and the avant garde. But they had more on their minds than music: Their art was rooted in the political milieu of the times, and inseparable from the social causes that inspired them to express themselves through music. “During the ’80s there was a resurgence in Asian American consciousness,” Wong explains. “Many of us were involved in the campaign for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, the movement for justice for Vincent Chin [a young Chinese American murdered in Detroit] and Jesse Jackson’s campaign. A lot of us wrote music to play at events and benefits, but we weren’t getting any recognition in the American music scene.”

When Asian Improv released its first recording, Jang’s The Ballad or the Bullet?, the founders saw their fledgling label more as a stopgap or stepping stone than a permanent enterprise. “We thought the artists would get recognition and get signed by a ‘real’ record label,” says Wong, who has six CDs under his own name on Asian Improv. “I think what we’ve learned is that we’re the real record label, at least in terms of preserving and promoting this major catalog of works.” Jang did in fact stray from AIR for much of the past decade, releasing a number of recordings, including the acclaimed Tiananmen! and Two Flowers on a Stem, on Italy’s Soul Note label, and entering into collaborations with such prominent jazz figures as David Murray, James Newton, Billy Hart and Max Roach. But recently, Jang returned to the label with a probing solo piano session, Self Portrait, and Beijing Trio, with drumming legend Roach and erhu (Chinese two-string violin) virtuoso Jiebing Chen.

Jang’s AIR homecoming coincides with the broadening of Asian Improv’s vision as it enters the 21st century. “At one time, when you looked at Asian Improv you saw Jon Jang, Fred Ho and Glenn Horiuchi,” Jang says, “but then you see that it started to include people like [koto player] Miya Masaoka, [bassist] Mark Izu and younger musicians like [pianist] Vijay Iyer. Now it’s expanded beyond so-called Asian American creative music to include hip-hop and world music.”

AIR’s recent releases have ranged from Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra’s meticulous re-arrangement of the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn classic Far East Suite, to a hip-hop compilation entitled Elephant Tracks! benefiting the Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance’s annual High School Motivational Conference at the University of California at Santa Cruz; Yoko Meets John by Osaka-born, Chicago-based blues singer/pianist Yoko Noge; and a multi-artist blues anthology, Jade Blue. Scheduled for spring of 2000 are Streams, by the Francis Wong-Elliott Kavee Quartet; a Jon Jang-David Murray duet album; more live recordings by Fred Anderson from the Velvet Lounge in Chicago (with percussionist Hamid Drake, guitarist Jeff Parker, and bassist Tatsu Aoki); and a disc from Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto’s band Mothra, all available through the Internet at the AIR/Justice Matters on-line store, www.jmstore.com.

“We’re planning to release music by artists who play traditional Asian music, as well,” notes Wong. “The through-line is how music relates to culture and how that relates to building community. Going into this new period, we’re not only preserving but building the catalog. What started out as the work of a few individual artists is becoming a significant representation of a developed musical culture that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It includes musicians from different parts of the U.S. and from Asia—people who come out of different experiences. Through collaborations with masters like Max Roach and Fred Anderson, we’ve developed a consciousness that we are actually contributing to that greater American musical legacy. Beijing Trio, The Fred Anderson Quartet Live at the Velvet Lounge, Far East Suite—these show that we are not only Asian Americans playing music, but that we are in the process of making and defining new American music.”

Also on AIR’s horizon, according to Wong, is a national Asian American Jazz Festival, in conjunction with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and similar organizations in Chicago and Boston, making the small but mighty label’s Miles Davis-inspired motto, “New Directions in Music,” that much more of a reality.

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