A world through Coltrane: Asian American Orchestra pays tribute to jazz legend

BAND LEADER AND SCHOLAR — Dr. Anthony Brown is a leader of the innovative sounds featured in his Asian American Orchestra (middle photo). The diverse range of instrumentation in the band lends to a whole new experience of the music behind John Coltrane. photos courtesy of Anthony Brown

“India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane” is an hour-long set that Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra premiered on Sept. 29 at Yoshi’s San Francisco. The two-part concert plays tribute to jazz legend John Coltrane’s religious and spiritual expression found in his later works, when they became particularly spiritually oriented with the 1964 release of “A Love Supreme.”

Anthony Brown, a Japanese American and African American percussionist, ethnomusicologist and Smithsonian Associate Scholar, conceived the album’s idea while working on Leonard Brown’s new book, “John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music,” a collection of essays analyzing Coltrane’s influences on and by African American culture throughout Coltrane’s life and beyond.

The book features two chapters by Brown. One, a chapter focusing on Coltrane’s spiritual nature in music after releasing “A Love Supreme,” and a second chapter focusing on Berkeley composer and scholar Olly Wilson and his views on the background of spirituality and communication through music in African American culture.

Brown incorporates the influence Coltrane had from music originating from India and Africa into his latest release. However, while Coltrane kept within bounds of traditional instrumentation in jazz, Brown takes a step into incorporating non-traditional instruments into his orchestra to create one of the most unique sounds available in jazz today. Through the use of African percussion instruments and other Asian winds such as the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and sheng (Chinese mouth organ), Brown incorporates a strange fusion of sounds both recognizably jazzy and exotically enchanting.

A preview of the set initially premiered at Yoshi’s in San Francisco on Sept. 23, 2009, on what would have been Coltrane’s 83rd birthday.

Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra was initially conceived as the Asian American Jazz Orchestra in 1997 to help educate audiences about the Japanese American internment experiences during World War II. The band — consisting of many notable Bay Area musicians, including Brown, Mark Izu (on bass and sheng), Wayne Wallace (on trombone) and Melecio Magdaluyo (on saxes) — toured with San Jose Taiko.

Since then, the members have changed up, save for the core musicians, but Brown does so to suit each new project.

“The AAO personnel changes with each project, since each one has a different focus and requires different expertise,” Brown said.

While the members change, however, Brown keeps to a solid vision. “My concept for the AA Orchestra is pretty consistent: blending Asian instruments and sensibilities into jazz, which is a reflection of my artistic vision and my life, which is quite an intercultural experience itself. I look at music as a language, and when one is able to communicate in various languages or ‘musics,’ hopefully there is a greater possibility of relating to more people.”

For “India & Africa,” the band features some of the strangest instrumentation to be incorporated into a jazz ensemble to date. Brown initially was told about Dana Pandey, a tabla (north Indian drums) player, who in turn told Brown to contact Pushpa Oda (who plays the North Indian zither) and Steve Oda (who plays the North Indian lute). Combined with Izu’s sheng, Kenneth Nash on percussion and instruments from all corners of the globe, “India & Africa” travels across the world in sound.

As an introduction, the music for the India section features various sounds originating from India. Curiously enough, the set begins with “Living Space,” a piece reminiscent of gagaku, the traditional court music in Japan. Brown explains that Coltrane’s “Living Space,” the only recording on which he “overdubs or multi-tracks himself playing a second (soprano) saxophone,” reminded him of the traditional Japanese court music.

Pandey and Steve Oda’s distinct solos throughout the “India: Diaspora” section is indicative of Indian music’s far-reaching influences around the world. While the gagaku serves as the beginning, Brown explains the roots of that music came from India. Likewise, the music travels further westward toward Spain in “Olé,” while the movements in “India” feature Coltrane’s jazzy saxophone solos and drums.

“Suite: Africa” opens with Nash’s percussion and vocal solo, and the drum beats are featured heavily throughout this set, especially the bongos. Nash’s drumming remains central throughout all the movements, from its opening to its travels through the heartland of Africa to Liberia and Benin (formerly known as Dahomey).

A concert to celebrate the release of  “India & Africa” and the publication of the Coltrane book took place on Sept. 29 and was attended by friends and family of the band. The venue offered a cozy atmosphere, where the musicians mingled with the audience during the intermission and after the show. The concert featured the two sets as well as a sneak preview of Brown’s latest commissioned work for the Asian American Jazz festival’s 30th anniversary, titled “Sanju.

Brown, who pulled from the experience his mother faced during the wartime fire-bombing of Tokyo, premiered a piece entitled “Rain of Fire.” The piece features heavy and fast drumming reminiscent of the B-29 bombers that flew over the skies of Tokyo during the war, and a somber tune that follows its aftermath.

Sanju” is set to be a collection of works encompassing the whole range of Asian American experiences and is Brown’s current project.

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