Tatsu Aoki gets small
by Andy Downing, Special to the Tribune
September 18, 2009
Even though the Miyumi Project is best known for its festival shows -- massive productions in which the group can swell to as many as two dozen members, including a small army of taiko drummers -- the best time to hear the crew explore new musical frontiers is when it performs as a more scaled-down ensemble. Such is the case when bassist Tatsu Aoki brings his long-running, East-meets-West jazz improvisation project to the Velvet Lounge this weekend.
"Generally when I do the club shows it's about seven or eight of us," says Aoki, who immigrated from Japan to Chicago in 1978, to study experimental film at the Art Institute and pursue a career in music. "I think the smaller combo is much more fluid and there are more improvised ideas built into the show. The larger ensembles require more structure because when you're playing with many musicians you need to have a bit more specific direction."
The comfort level between the bandmates aids the musical exploration; a number of the group's key members, including Mwata Bowden (baritone saxophone) and Amy Homma (taiko drums), have been playing with Aoki for more than a decade. As such, Aoki describes the musical interplay between the musicians as "a family conversation."
"It's not about the solo or whatnot," he continues. "It's about the collective sound we create together in the moment."
Miyumi Project's sound is rooted in traditional Japanese folk music, which Aoki describes as "cyclical" -- closer to the blues than jazz in its use of repetition. Drawing inspiration from the festival music he grew up with, the bassist creates a loose framework that serves as an anchor for the group's free jazz explorations. "I set up with my taiko drummers this motif from Japanese folklore," says Aoki. "So you have the same background things happening, and then you're free to do whatever you want on top."
Early on, the group struggled to find acceptance among jazz audiences because the music frequently sounded like something from another time and place. Aoki says the typical reaction was along the lines of, "Wow, this is strange." Still, the bassist persevered because he had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish. Indeed, an ongoing part of Aoki's mission is to preserve Eastern musical traditions -- even as he incorporates Western instrumentation and ideas.
It's true that, in many regards, the Western world dominates global popular culture. "The Simpsons," for one, has been dubbed into languages as varied as Arabic, Spanish and Czech. Along these lines, Aoki noticed that often, when musicians integrated any sort of Eastern influence, it was forced to bend and shift, taking on more traditionally Western characteristics. "Generally, Western music is very bad at adapting," he says. "A majority of the time, that Asian instrumentation is customized for the Western idea. I wanted to reverse that in the Miyumi Project."
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It was a gamble, but East thrillingly meets West in Miyumi Project
Chicago Tribune Jazz notes
By Howard Reich, Tribune critic
May 9, 2008
More than 30 years ago, bassist-bandleader Tatsu Aoki took an artistic gamble: He began combining facets of ancient Japanese music with freewheeling jazz improvisation.
Though rudimentary, those first cross-genre efforts of his, in his native Japan, eventually blossomed into the Miyumi Project, now widely recognized as a groundbreaking merger of music from East and West.
Because Aoki moved to Chicago in the late 1970s and quickly set about developing his Asian-American experiment, the Miyumi Project has become a symbol of Chicago-style jazz innovation. Its rough-and-tumble sound, embracing everything from funk backbeats to blues vocals to avant-garde improv, has attracted audiences across the city and around the globe.
But due to economics, Aoki usually presents a small-scale version of Miyumi, which acquired its official name in the late 1990s. The tiny budgets of most jazz clubs can't support more than a compact group of Miyumi musicians: a few instrumentalists, a couple of taiko drummers, an occasional singer.
Come Friday evening, however, Aoki will get to stretch out, leading a dramatically expanded Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre, as part of its genre-bending Traffic series. When Aoki takes the stage of Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, he'll be joined by a dozen instrumentalists, a consortium of teenage taiko drummers and others, for a program aptly titled "East Meets the Rest."
"Only a few times in my life do I get to present all that Miyumi is," says Aoki.
The opportunity is important, explains Aoki, because it enables him to explore a broad swath of Japanese musical culture, while merging it with the rhythms of his adopted American home. Listeners fortunate enough to have seen the Miyumi Project in its full glory—at the Asian American Jazz Festival in 2001 and at Millennium Park in 2006—will not soon forget the gripping power of this work.
Imagine incendiary jazz horn solos, thunderous Japanese percussion and searing blues vocals (provided by longtime Aoki collaborator Yoko Noge), and you have a rough idea of the sonic force of the Miyumi Project.
At a European concert last year, listeners heard "taiko drums speaking the universal language of the heartbeat," writes Lauren Deutsch in her illuminating liner notes to Aoki's newest CD, "The Miyumi Project Live in Poland" (Southport Records). They witnessed "the graceful arcs of wooden sticks moving as if in one breath by master drummers … Tatsu Aoki's steady bass line anchoring the dual flights of Mwata Bowden's searing baritone [saxophone] chasing Francis Wong's taunting soprano [sax]."
For the Steppenwolf show, Aoki and friends will offer extended excerpts of his first great Miyumi suite, "Rooted: Origins of Now" (premiered in 2001), its intriguing sequel, "re: Rooted" (2006), and new vocal material developed by singer-pianist Noge.
Audiences often ask Aoki what the word Miyumi means. It literally means, he says, a "beautiful bow," of the kind that a bassist would use.
But it's also the name of his youngest daughter. When Miyumi Aoki was born, 10 years ago, it "really made me think that now we are an immigrant family," says the bassist.
"It made me feel I have migrated here and my life is here now. … It was kind of an important moment of my life."
And one that has produced a distinctive, often thrilling music.
Chicago Tribune: JAZZ REVIEW
By Howard Reich, Tribune critic
May 12, 2008
Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre
Few musicians have fused American jazz and Japanese folklore as dramatically as Chicago bassist/bandleader Tatsu Aoki.
Through his long-running Miyumi Project, Aoki has dared to pair avant-garde instrumentalists with thunderous Japanese taiko drummers, in effect linking two musical traditions otherwise separated by centuries and oceans. The partnership may seem unlikely, but at its best it can be exciting to behold.
The debut of the Miyumi Project on Steppenwolf Theatre's eclectic Traffic series over the weekend attracted a large house, perhaps because listeners anticipated fireworks.
Aoki and friends had something else in mind, however, presenting a more muted but still serenely beautiful cross-cultural experiment. Though at least one listener would have welcomed more of the incendiary musicmaking that the Miyumi Project can unleash, Friday night's performance offered lyrical pleasures of its own.
On one side of the stage, a choir of saxophonists dispatched tautly controlled jazz motifs Aoki had penned for them. On the other side, a corps of Japanese-American musicians swathed in ceremonial garb and playing taiko drums and other percussion instruments provided telegraphic backbeats.
Performing excerpts from Aoki's epic suites "Rooted: Origins of Now" (2001) and "re: Rooted" (2006), this version of the Miyumi band sounded more intent than ever on emphasizing parallels between two disparate traditions. While saxophonists Mwata Bowden and Francis Wong improvised on a jazz motif, for instance, the taiko drummers responded with surging beats and ethereal, wordless chant. Jazz improv and Japanese ritual merged poetically here, as if derived from a single source.
Perhaps the most eloquent and endearing moment of all occurred when singer Yoko Noge slowly paced the stage, softly intoning Japanese music of the 1920s, while American and Asian rhythms pulsed behind her. The Miyumi Project never sounded more intimately persuasive.