November 1, 2002

Asian-American Jazz Fest at the MCA

Asian American Jazz Festival

Museum of Contemporary Art

Thursday, October 24th

Most people do not immediately associate Asian-Americans with jazz, so the appeal of the Seventh Annual Asian-American Jazz Festival in Chicago was somewhat limited. This festival proved that Asian-Americans can play jazz on traditional Asian instruments or traditional jazz instruments and they can play with any type of person. In short, it was great.

The festival opened Thursday, October 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, downtown. The opening act was an experimental duo of bassist/festival organizer Tatsu Aoki and world-renowned pipa player Wu Man. The pipa is a Chinese instrument that is somewhat similar to a banjo, but that sounds a little less twangy and a little more guitar-like. It complemented the bass sound very well and the entire performance was beautifully amplified, which has become somewhat rare with acoustic basses. Each musician played well, but the performance wasn't Grammy-worthy. It lacked excitement-that's not to say that it wasn't good, just that it didn't send chills up and down my spine as some great performances do.

So, when I returned on Friday to hear the second night; my expectations weren't really high, but I knew that the second bill, Jon Jang and David Murray, would be good. The first ensemble on Friday was another semi-experimental group with Tatsu Aoki, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger, and Joseph Jarmin. The latter two each played about a half dozen instruments ranging from double reeds to single reeds to percussion. With a set that was only about an hour, I wondered if having all 12 instruments on stage was completely necessary, but to the artists' credit, they used most of the instruments, though some only briefly. This ensemble, like the previous, escaped categorization.

After this set, I was somewhat tempted to give up on the festival. I just wanted to hear some normal jazz: not free, not avant-garde, just some swing or blues. Enter David Murray and Jon Jang. Murray is a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet and has released dozens of great recordings ranging from big bands to trios to rap. Jon Jang is certainly one of the premier Asian jazz pianists alive today. He has been commissioned to write for the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Kronos Quartet. In 1999, he was nominated to receive a Grammy for his work with Anthony Brown on The Far East Suite. Needless to say, these two were the festival headliners.

And they played like headliners. Murray's tenor sound, on par with that of anyone playing today, filled the house, and Jang's piano matched well. The compositions ranged from Asian-influenced ballads to bluesy, up-tempo numbers. Each player was comfortable playing in any style; Jang would switch from playing an oriental theme to playing a straightforward lick with seemingly no effort. But the most impressive aspect of the performance was the energy that the duo conveyed to the audience. The playing was great—Asian-American jazz certainly deserves to be recognized as good music.

So next year when this show comes around again, grab some tickets and go. You'll be pleasantly surprised with the result; I was.