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Miyumi Project Big Band: Rooted: Origins of Now

Two projects led by the bassist, composer and bandleader Tatsu Aoki have recently come out of Chicago. The first is Rooted: Origins of Now by The Miyumi Project Big Band (Jazz Institute of Chicago), an auspicious inaugural recording by the Chicago Composer’s Project. The music for this 14-piece group is composed and conducted by Aoki. It’s a large, sometimes sprawling piece divided into four parts or movements. Part one has a funky, in-the-pocket big beat played by trap set, bass and three taiko drummers. Saxophonists Mwata Bowden, Taku Akiyama, Toru Hironaka, violinist Jonathan Chen and trumpeter Ameen Muhammad all get to cut loose on the 2/4 pentatonic groove. Part two features the composer playing his trademark beer-bottle slide on bass, before walking under some free-jazz solos. Chen not only plays interesting lines but also incorporates electronics with his violin, so that it’s sometimes hard to tell what instrument he’s actually playing. It’s a shame he’s slightly off-mike much of the time. Trap drummer Mia Park rocks out on part three, with horns and violin playing some crazy counterpoint. Part four finds vocalist Yoko Noge applying her distinctive vibrato to the Japanese folk tune “Jongara Buchi” with edgy textures and sonic sighs behind her. These musicians are not afraid of dissonance or going over the top; but even Ken Burns might find much of this music coherent, exciting, relatively accessible and a great step forward in documenting the Asian-American experience in modern jazz.

The second of these Chicago projects, A Symphony of Cities (Southport), presents Tatsu Aoki and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye engaging in a series of spirited duets, and on two numbers they’re joined by tenor saxophonist Francis Wong and flutist Joel Brandon. “Afro Asian Reflections” is mostly Moye, who’s been MIA on the domestic music scene while pursuing projects overseas with the Art Ensemble of Africa. Moye starts the proceedings with Indonesian gongs and moves on to assorted exotic percussion instruments with great sensitivity toward dynamics. About seven minutes in, Aoki sets up a beat or phrase, and it’s illuminating to hear how Moye subdivides it, then turns it upside down and inside out. On “Promise” we again hear Aoki’s slip-sliding glissandos, with Moye this time on trap set and brushes. The drummer then plays conga for his “Ode to Wilbur Ware,” the only piece in this set not totally improvised. It’s a moving tribute to another great Chicago bassist, and it’s altogether appropriate that Aoki should lay down a spare, deep ostinato, leaving Brandon and Wong to play the melody and dart around one another. Brandon even quotes Monk on his whistle, and Wong later plays just his mouthpiece.

Both of these two new discs are co-produced by Asian Improv Records, a do-it-yourself musician’s collective based in San Francisco. It’s good to see creative musicians in communities across the country collaborating and creating their own opportunities in the face of a record industry dominated by global media giants.

Originally Published