Virtually every culture in this planet’s history has had its trickster figure: mythological spirits or gods or characters who mischievously oppose and subvert conventional wisdom and traditional behavior.
Native American cultures have Coyote; Norse mythology features the shape-shifting god Loki; the Irish have their leprechauns. The U.S. traces a lineage of long-eared rebels, from Brer Rabbit to Bugs Bunny. For nearly 30 years, the jazz world has had its own trickster in the saxophonist, composer, arranger, bandleader and writer Fred Ho.
The trickster should never be taken for mere comic relief: Though seemingly playful, its sly humor is almost invariably directed against those whose power and pomposity has blinded them to their own ridiculousness. Fred Ho stares out from the cover of his new big-band CD, Celestial Green Monster (Mutable/Big Red), naked save for his strategically placed baritone sax, his body painted bright green, a triangular patch of hair (his so-called “vulva vector”) shaved into the top of his head.
This is not the image of a candy-colored clown, however, as Ho’s steely gaze would attest. Instead, he is the Incredible Hulk, the primal rage always ready to burst forth from within this soft-spoken intellectual; he is Godzilla, stomping down skyscrapers while breathing fire from the bell of his horn. “The green monster is a type of formidable Frankenstein’s monster, [like] The Hulk, a pacifist who, when angered, turns into as raging unstoppable behemoth, but never harms the weak and innocent, only the powerful and aggressive,” Ho says. “The Green Monster Big Band is an aggregation of such beings not indentured to the establishment.”
Ho has dealt directly with the trickster in his own work over the years. His “serial fantasy action-adventure music/theater epic,” Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey is an adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel Journey to the West, a collection of tales concerning Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, China’s own trickster legend. His new big-band disc opens with his arrangement of the theme from the late-’60s Spiderman cartoon. “Spiderman is a trickster anti-hero in the Marvel comic books,” Ho says. “He was the first superhero who didn’t want to be a superhero.”
Cartoons and comic books might seem like strange source material for someone with Ho’s legendarily militant political views. But Ho has long drawn on elements of popular culture in his work, staging martial-arts ballet pieces drawn from kung fu films and manga (Japanese comics), recording an opera about a vampire-turned-pop-star, or paying tribute to Michael Jackson, as he does on the Green Monster Big Band’s forthcoming second album, Very, Very Baaad!
“There are two aspects of pop culture,” Ho explains, “one that I call ‘Big P’ and one that I call ‘Small P.’ The Big P has been [commoditized] and commercialized, but it became that way by appropriating the Small P, as rock is an appropriation of blues. So why can’t the Small P, the guerrillas, go into the Big P and abscond with something from it? That’s how I see the guerrilla aesthetic, which to me is the quintessential aesthetic of ‘jazz.’ My music is not a rejection of tradition, not this didactic or dogmatic avant-gardism, but [rather] the trickster approach to tradition.”
Ho’s concept of jazz (a word which he always places in quotes, viewing it as derived from a pejorative term) was forged in the socio-politically heated environment of the late ’60s/early ’70s, inspired by the Black Arts Movement and fueled by the nascent Asian-American movement. His music is inseparable from his activism, with exclamation-point-filled titles espousing Marxist slogans or paying homage to radical icons, and compositions evoking the ’60s avant-garde, from Archie Shepp to Sun Ra.
And suddenly, along with his strident wit and uncompromising standards, he has been given another asset: renewed youth. During the making of Celestial Green Monster, Ho progressed through another folkloric trope, that of rebirth, via a grueling battle with cancer. “I’m the new Fred Ho,” he says. “Three and a half years old.”
The new Fred Ho was born on Aug. 4, 2006, when Ho was diagnosed with colon cancer. Over the next three years, he suffered through three tumors and seven surgeries, beating incredible odds to survive. “I’m supposed to have been dead,” Ho says matter-of-factly, munching on grapes in the dining room of his Brooklyn apartment. “The first tumor, I was given two out of three chances of living. Not too bad. The second tumor, less than 50 percent. The third tumor, only one in 30,000 chances of living. So I’ve been gifted with continuing life and I don’t want to squander it. I don’t have professional goals anymore. That would be a very reductive application of this gift.”