Music festivals organized around nonmusical factors are strange animals. When all the participants are black or female or Asian–anything but white men, really–the implication is that the music they create constitutes its own category. Such is the case with this weekend’s Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, which actually covers cultures as disparate as Korean and Indian. Certainly there is a tendency to collaborate within a given community, but to lump in, say, the amiable local blues singer Yoko Noge with the gifted, eastward-looking saxist Francis Wong is as far-fetched as calling directors Wayne Wang and Gregg Araki comrades in some sort of Asian-American cinematic new wave. Wong has the right take on the gathering: he likens it to the AACM, which seeks to promote a sense of community and broaden
jazz’s sonic vocabulary. A seminal figure in the Bay Area free-jazz boomlet, Wong has played a leading role in introducing Chinese and Japanese instruments and folk elements into the mix. He’s classically trained on the violin, but took up flute and sax and gravitated toward jazz while in his teens; he soon became a devotee of Ellington, Coltrane, and Monk, who’d incorporated Asian elements into their own work after touring the Pacific Rim. While studying Chinese folk tradition and gagaku, Japanese court music, Wong found startling similarities with jazz in the emphasis on improvisation and instrumental color. He’s also picked up on the prevalence of pregnant pauses in Asian music and adopted the device in his own mellow, meditative soundscapes. On Chicago Time Code (improvising with Aoki and Bradley Parker-Sparrow) and other recent CDs on Asian Improv Records, he’s apt to quote well-known Chinese melodies or use shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) techniques on the flute, yet the effects are convincingly individualistic. Wong will perform in three of the festival’s concerts, but the Saturday-night sets with the Desert Flower Ensemble seem the most promising: he’ll be jamming with fellow San Franciscans bassist Mark Izu, percussionist Anthony Brown, and koto ace Miya Masaoka. Friday and Saturday, 8 PM, Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division; 773-235-3232. Sunday, 3 PM, New Furama Restaurant, 2828 S. Wentworth; 312-744-1819.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew T. Nazaka.