Tuesday, September 02, 2008


By Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra
Water Baby Records

The history of San Francisco’s Fillmore District is colorful to say the least, having once been home to Bill Graham’s rock palace and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. Formerly known as Nihonjin-Machi or Japantown before WWII, the Japanese internment camps created vacancies that were filled by an influx of African-American laborers working for defense contractors. For a time the Fillmore was known as the Harlem of the West for its jazz clubs and nightlife, before urban planning run amok devastated the neighborhood. “Bridging Japantown and the Fillmore with Jazz” is the theme for Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra’s tenth season of programming, which they are launching with the release of TEN, which includes selections from past releases as well as some previously unreleased music.

Making their recorded debut on TEN are brief selections from Brown’s soundtrack for Philip Gotanda’s stage drama After the War, which tells the story of a Japanese ex-jazz musician returning from an internment camp to his Fillmore home after the Allied victory. As such, it is clearly a work Brown can thematically relate to. The three selections heard here are essentially cues, but sound quite nice. However, their clever sequencing actually makes what could be dismissed as a sampler package sound like a unified program. For instance, the opening “After the War [Act II]” with its steady groove and cool muted trumpet leads rather fittingly into Mingus’s “Self Portrait in Three Colors.”

Brown’s Asian American Orchestra regularly features Yangqin Zhao’s Chinese hammered dulcimer in their instrumentation, which adds a rich texture to the Mingus standard and the following “Andantino/Adagio” from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. His arrangement gives the primary solo space to Will Bernard’s guitar, a less than obvious choice for classical pops favorite that works terrifically.

TEN also draws tracks from sessions featuring special guests, which might be the strongest showcase fusions of jazz and traditional Asian music on the disk. On Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” David Murray’s bass clarinet sounds particularly soulful over Hong Wang’s Chinese violin. Likewise, Monk’s “Misterioso” sounds like a natural vehicle both for the dulcimer and a soprano solo from the late great Steve Lacy that is both funky and adventurous, much like Monk himself. The Chinese percussion and strings are less pronounced on Monk’s “Hackensack,” but it definitely cooks, with Lacy again demonstrating why he was considered one of the foremost performers of the composer’s music, followed by a swinging open-horned solo from trumpeter John Worley.

As represented on TEN, Brown’s orchestra is arguably the most successful group integrating jazz and Eastern musical forms since perhaps Joe Harriott and John Mayer’s Double Quintet. By comparison, while Kenny Garrett’s Beyond the Wall was an excellent album, it was much more western jazz-dominated and took its inspiration more from Tibetan chants than from instrumental sources, whereas Bob James’ Angels of Shanghai just was not that good.

Most importantly, this is an excellent band that sounds really together. Based in San Francisco, they will kick off their season at Yoshi’s on September 11th (I wish them luck with that, but its still not a going out night for me). TEN does make one want to hear them live though, so one hopes a tour will soon bring them east (meaning Manhattan) soon.