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Jon Jang

What does pianist/composer Jon Jang have to do to get some props up in here? After three widely-acclaimed albums on Soul Note, his fresh transmutation of traditional Chinese folk songs and instruments into a socio-politically-charged improvisational jazz omniverse validates his vision as well as his skills…he should be large.

The depth of Jang’s accomplishments is even more extraordinary given that he took up classical piano studies at 19 and that he first experienced the music of his people as a child via a recording of Paul Robeson(!) singing Mandarin songs of resistance (“It was 1941, he re-contextualized them as war songs against Japan,” marvels Jang). Growing, Jang soon left the discipline’s rigid orthodoxy for the expansive possibilities of jazz after hearing Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador LP. “The music poured through me and made me start to look at life and how meaningful it is,” says Jang. “Then I became influenced by Coltrane. ‘My Favorite Things,’ ‘India’ with Dolphy, his use of drones and whole-tone scales (to me) was to further explore world music-African and Asian.” Ironically, it would be through this multi-culti prism that Jon Jang would find his Asian soul.

Jang takes his soul to the hole with his latest release on Soul Note, Island: The Immigration Suite No. 1. A masterful synthesis of immigrant poetry, evocatively didactic rants (from vocalist Genny Lim), Trane-esque saxes, free-form folk instruments and intermittent shape-shifting pianisms, Island is inspired by the travails of the Chinese immigrants detained/deported on San Francisco’s Angel Island from 1910-1940. Island: the Immigration Suite No. 1 is a poignant testament to the defiant human spirit that meets life’s harshest adversities unbowed.

On a serious roll, Jang wound up ’97 with two performances at the Beijing International Jazz Festival and Portugal’s Guimaraes jazz Festival. With more projects in the pipeline, his goal “to create a body of work out of my musical language and to leave something for future generations of Chinese-Americans” is a work-in-progress that will not be deterred by indifferent presenters or indifferent media-the ancestors are calling him strong.

Originally Published