In booking the newly formed Beijing Trio–which stars venerable drummer Max Roach and innovative Chinese-American pianist Jon Jang–the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival has scored the greatest coup of its four-year history. Roach’s involvement has predictably caused most of the buzz: the 75-year-old genius helped invent (and certainly perfected) bebop drumming on numerous Charlie Parker recordings of the 40s, and has consistently stretched his style to accommodate new idioms since then. But there’s a great deal more to this group, whose eponymously titled first album, just released on Asian Improv Records, is a startlingly ecumenical fusion of traditional Chinese music and Western improvisation. Its members, not surprisingly, represent both sides of the Pacific: Roach was born in North Carolina and lives in New York, and Jiebing Chen, a virtuoso of the erhu, or two-stringed Chinese violin, is a Shanghai native; Jang, a Californian who’s been a driving force in the combination of jazz techniques and Asian musical traditions, acts as fulcrum and culture-shock absorber. Roach and Jang pair off for nearly half the album, a matchup reminiscent of Roach’s surprising duets with avant-garde masters Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor two decades ago. From the opening drumbeats of the first track, “Moon Over the Great Wall,” their synergy leaps into the foreground, thanks to Jang’s skill as an arranger (honed with his own Pan-Asian Arkestra) and Roach’s ability to modify his still formidable technique to meet the demands of a genre far removed from the jazz mainstream. The wild card, Chen, turns out to be an ace: her erhu’s sweet-wine timbre runs from intoxicating to plaintive to surprisingly forceful, and her improvised melodies create a rippling surface under which Roach and Jang roil and jostle. The first of the Beijing Trio’s two shows opens with another unusual threesome, west coast saxist Francis Wong with Chicagoans Fred Anderson on tenor and Hamid Drake on drums; a duo of local percussionist Michael Zerang and Boston-based bassist Jeff Song, who also plays a 12-string koto-like zither called a kayagum, opens the second night. Friday and Sunday, 8 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-397-4010.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Nozaka.