For more than three decades, Chicago bassist-composer Tatsu Aoki has been exploring both the musical traditions of his Japanese homeland and the ways in which jazz, avant-garde and blues are played in his adopted city.
His experiments in merging these seemingly unrelated worlds have yielded several gripping works, most notably "Rooted: Origins of Now" (2001), "re: Rooted" (2006) and "Trans-Rooted" (2010).
None of these projects, however, ventured into storytelling as linear or as mysterious as "Reduction," which Aoki and a large ensemble of taiko drummers, jazz musicians and dancers presented Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Though the piece had its stronger and weaker passages, it showed Aoki producing some of the most autobiographical work of his career.
Essentially, as Aoki explained to the audience in opening remarks, "Reduction" was designed to trace the narrative of his artistic journey, from his teenage years in Japan, in the 1970s, to his musical maturation in Chicago. Thus the piece unfolded as a series of vignettes, the earliest ones suggesting the first works that Aoki and friends staged in their youth in Japan, while subsequent scenes drew upon the viscerally exciting idioms Aoki discovered and embraced in Chicago.
Given this information, it was not difficult to follow the progress of "Reduction," even with minimal verbal explanation. But certain scenes were more effective than others, suggesting that some editing could sharpen an already intriguing work.
Certainly "Reduction" opened strongly, six taiko drummers standing in dramatic formation on the MCA stage, their vigorous music-making reminding listeners that poetry of motion is as critical to this art form as the thunder of its sound. As the drummers moved their arms broadly and in tandem, one could savor the choreographic majesty of this tradition, as well as its visceral sonic impact.
The scenes that followed juxtaposed young taiko drummers evoking Aoki's 1970s colleagues alongside older, traditional Japanese figures dressed in ceremonial garb who clearly represented ancient ways of making art. But if these sequences were meant to show tensions between new and old, they didn't fully succeed, in that the two worlds appeared alongside one another without great dramatic effect.
In general, the most moving passages of "Reduction" belonged to the instrumentalists, who expressed in sound what proved difficult to convey via dramatization. When Aoki played magisterial notes on bass while Edward Wilkerson, Jr., produced torrents of sound on tenor saxophone and taiko drummers telegraphed insistent rhythms without pause, "Reduction" came urgently to life.
Similarly, Wilkerson's extended solo on didgeridoo and Nicole Mitchell's East-meets-West passages on flute – complete with exquisitely bent, sighing pitches – expressed Aoki's cross-oceanic aesthetic as lyrically as one could hope to hear.
One sequence involving dance and percussion, however, represented a high point of the evening. As an ensemble of taiko drummers hammered their instruments and a bass drum rumbled from offstage, dancer Ayako Kato performed solo movement that combined beauty of line and nobility of gesture with extraordinarily fluid travel across the stage. Here movement and music eloquently cohered. Should Aoki ever decide to refine "Reduction," this sequence deserves to be expanded.
For all the pageantry and impact of the evening's taiko drumming, it must be noted that the ensemble playing was not always as well synchronized as it could have been. This became particularly clear when jazz drummers Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake shared the stage with taiko drummer Eigen Aoki (Tatsu's son). Here, at last, listeners heard three percussionists locked into a joint rhythmic concept, to captivating effect.
Not long after, Tatsu Aoki joined Mitchell, Wilkerson and taiko drummers in playing a vast, improvised passage steeped in blues expression, the music of Chicago and Japan converging as if from a single source. Here was the key sequence of "Reduction," a musically profound statement on where Aoki's musical odyssey has taken him.
How fortunate we are that he decided to pursue it.