2:18 PM CST, November 29, 2012
Jazz in Chicago encompasses many overlapping scenes, and one of the most distinctive of them will launch its yearly celebration this weekend.
The city's Asian-American community has contributed immeasurably to the richness and range of music in Chicago, nowhere more than during the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, which launches its 17th edition on Friday night and continues the following weekend.
During the course of three performances, listeners will hear unusual ensembles, each representing a different esthetic yet all seeking innovative ways of improvising and composing music. Asian-American jazz, these musicians seem to be saying, above all looks to the future (even as it taps certain elements of the musical past).
Yet those who haven't followed the particular achievements of the city's Asian-American jazz landscape might wonder why a separate festival spotlighting this population exists in the first place. Isn't it enough that Asian-American artists thrive among the top tier of Chicago musicians?
"It's very apparent to us when we look at various (album) compilations that are released, or the programming of different organizations around the city and nationwide, that the Asian-American contribution is basically overlooked," says saxophonist-bandleader Jeff Chan, who has organized this year's festival with stalwarts such as bassist Tatsu Aoki and vocalist-pianist Yoko Noge.
"If we don't document (the music) ourselves, who will?" adds Chan, noting that all of this year's performances will be recorded for an online archive yet to be built.
"We are and have been contributors to the music scene. … I don't want to call people out, but I think there's an idea that Asian-Americans are just not seen as part of the fabric of this country, this culture. … There's a history of being ignored. We don't want that to happen to our music."
The festival indeed casts a bright light on bands that could not exist without the singular pulse and cultural perspective of Chicago's Asian-American jazz artists. The aforementioned Noge and Aoki, for instance, combine elements of traditional Japanese musical ritual with contemporary improvisational techniques. Chan's Cultural Arts Quartet builds on the methods of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a South Side collective that has been reinventing the music since the mid-1960s.
Indeed, many of the Asian-American artists in this year's festival and previous ones have formed a tight bond with the city's African-American jazz community, which is no coincidence.
"In the work that I do, and in the work that Tatsu (Aoki) and Jon Jang in San Francisco (do) … we've all tried to highlight the collaboration between the Asian-American and African-American communities, and I think that's a reflection of a wider social phenomenon," says Chan.
"The Asian-American community has often been a buffer community. If you look at a lot of cities, Chicago included, you have what's typically regarded as a black part of town, and what's typically regarded as a white part of town. And often times, as in Chicago, you have a Chinatown between them – here, on the near South Side. In San Francisco, it's Japantown."
Two ethnicities that have faced a history of discrimination, in other words, rub up against one another and find common cause. That union naturally expresses itself in music, as vividly shown by the Asian-American bands that long have flourished in Chicago.
Or, to put it in other terms, jazz always has carried an unmistakable social message celebrating freedom and racial equity, and the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival stands as another way of expressing it.
This year's event will feature unconventional settings, including Mana Contemporary on South Throop Street and the Japanese American Service Committee on North Clark Street. The demise of venues such as HotHouse and the Velvet Lounge, says Chan, has led festival planners to seek out alternative homes.
Chan represents a younger generation than Aoki and Noge and has carried their ideas forward. Though born and raised in California, he ventured here 10 years ago, the move changing his music and enriching ours.
"It was the best move of my life," says Chan, who has collaborated with such elder statesmen as saxophonists Jimmy Ellis and Ari Brown and also came into the orbit of tenor giants Fred Anderson and Von Freeman.
"The weather is a little different in Chicago than it is in California … but I didn't move to Chicago for the weather. I moved here for the music, and I got what I bargained for."
Following is the complete schedule for the 17th annual Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival; for more information, visit aajazz.org or phone 708-386-9349.
7 p.m. Friday: Tatsu Aoki's Experimental Unit. Aoki's band features cellist Jamie Kempers, reedist Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and taiko drummer Kioto Aoki. The ensemble will perform music in collaboration with an exhibition of paintings by Hiromi Tanaka. At Mana Contemporary, 2233 S. Throop St.; manafinearts.com/studios/chicago or 312-850-8301
7 p.m. Dec. 7: Yoko Noge and Japaesque2. Vocalist-pianist Noge will be joined by saxophonist Jimmy Ellis, guitarist Jimmy Burns, bassist and shamisen player Tatsu Aoki, drummer Bugs Cochran, cellist Jamie Kempers and others in what's billed as a "fusion wonderland of Chicago blues, jazz and Japanese music." At Japanese American Service Committee, 4427 N. Clark St.; jasc-chicago.org or 773-275-0097
9 p.m. Dec. 8: A double-bill features a solo set by pianist Bradley Parker-Sparrow and Jeff Chan's Cultural Arts Quartet, with reedist Edward Wilkerson, Jr.; bassist Tatsu Aoki; and drummer Avreeayl Ra. At Elastic Arts, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $12; elasticarts.org or 773-772-3616
Also worth hearing
"Ninety Miles": The title refers not only to a 2011 album by vibist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott (plus Cuban counterparts) but to the approximate distance between Miami and Havana. This time, the trumpet chair will be held by an even more formidable player, Nicholas Payton, while the opening attraction will be one of the most accomplished pianists in jazz, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $27-$60; 312-294-3000 or cso.org
Tom Harrell: An inspired composer-arranger, Harrell plays trumpet and fluegelhorn with unmatched poetry and grace. He'll lead a quintet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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