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Jazz From Around the World: Asia


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Asia is the most culturally and ethnically diverse continent. It is, therefore, hard to distill all its jazz influenced musical legacies into 10 albums. Some countries have robust jazz scenes that, nevertheless, are fundamentally derivative of European and American styles. In other musical cultures jazz has just recently made inroads. Below are 10 historic records that successfully melded regional folk traditions with jazz.

One of the first Asian countries to embrace jazz music was China. Expats like trumpeter Buck Clayton, who lead his first band there, brought the music to the progressive cultural atmosphere of cosmopolitan Shanghai. In 1935 Popular composer Li Jinhui put together the first, all Chinese jazz band called "The Clear Wind Dance Band." This ensemble premiered at the Yangtze River Dance Hall. Immensely popular and a controversial figure Li had been writing songs that combined Chinese folk music and Big Band Jazz since 1927. Unfortunately, no recorded music survives from the era but in 2002 Australian composer and conductor John Huie moved to Shanghai and recreated "The Clear Wind Band" with local musicians. They revived the music of this bygone era and, over the next five years, released two superb volumes of their work,Shanghai Jazz(EMI, 2004) and Shanghai Jazz 2 (EMI, 2007) that echo the splendor and the allure of the 1930s in China.

Jazz flourished in India in the 1920s and 1930s particularly in the large cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Goa, Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata). The music was brought over by immigrant African American musicians such as pianist Teddy Weatherford. Weatherford lead a big band in Mumbai and died in Kolkata at the young age of 41 from cholera. His and other black musicians' legacy, however, remained and flourished. For a detailed account of the birth of Indian Jazz see Naresh Fernandes' superb Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age (Roli Books, 2012). Two of the most iconic and timeless recordings of Indian music flavored jazz is Indo Jazz Suite (Atlantic 1966) and its follow up Indo Jazz Fusions (Atlantic 1967). Calcutta born violinist, pianist and composer John Mayer joined forces with Jamaican born, adventurous alto saxophonist Joe Harriott in London to create these unique recordings. Harriott's working quintet that consisted of the most brilliant jazz musicians in England and Mayer's distinctly Indian ensemble (two percussionists, a sitarist and a flutist) put their jazz inspired touch on Indian Ragas and other traditional tunes. Both albums were released on a single CD in 1998.

Of all the countries in the world Japan is the one that has the longest love affair with jazz, an affair that is ongoing and remains as passionate as ever. Filipino bands, primarily, as well as few American ones brought jazz, Japan in the 1920s. Shortly afterwards musicians such as trumpeter Fumio Nanri and others travelled to Shanghai and played with Americans working there. The 1930s saw the flourishing of a homegrown jazz scene in Tokyo and Osaka, one that was, nevertheless, derivative of American swing and other popular styles. One of the first musicians to create a genuine fusion of Japanese music and jazz was pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Her 1976 release Insights on RCA is the epitome of her singular style and a universal classic. On it, in addition to western instruments, she utilizes a quartet of Japanese traditional ones for a haunting and provocative sound.

Akiyoshi was not the first to utilize Japanese instrumentation in her recordings. Drummer and one-time colleague of Akiyoshi's Hideo Shiraki released Sakura Sakura in 1965 on the MPS/SABA label. On it Shiraki augmented his quintet, which featured virtuosic trumpeter Terumasa Hino, with three koto players moving away from the hard bop of his earlier career into more of a jazz-world fusion. Lastly, intrepid avant-garde-ist pianist Yosuke Yamashita put his indelible mark on free improvisation with his restless innovations. For the past two decades and a half he has been performing with primarily American musicians and mostly with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. His most "Japanese" work, however, remains his 1970 Mokujiki on Victor label. A powerful recording of unbridled spontaneity Mokujiki has weathered the test of time.

As mentioned above Filipino jazz bands introduced the music to Japan in the early part of the 20th century. Entertainer and bandleader Borromeo Lou is the man credited for popularizing jazz in the Philippines in the early 1920s. About half a century later a few inventive musicians fused jazz sensibilities with folk tunes, catchy pop motifs and rock rhythms and created, what they called as, Pinoy Jazz. One of the pioneers of this style was guitarist Eddie Munji III. His Pinoy Jazz Vol. 1 released in 1978 on the local JEM label sounds still fresh today with its funky beats, Asian motifs and infectious hooks.

Northwest of the Philippines Archipelago lies the country of Vietnam that had its own, albeit limited, jazz revival thanks to the efforts of two men. Saxophonists Quyen Van Minh and Tran Manh Tuan both are award winning musicians and have opened their own jazz clubs one in each of the two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Tran has been the more prolific recording artist of the two and has melded local, popular melodies with jazz. His 2006 self-released Jungle Lullaby (Ru Rung) showcases his unique blend of musical styles and is supremely lyrical.

Most people in the western hemisphere when they think of Asia they think of the Indian subcontinent and the East and South East Asian countries. Geographically Asia also contains large part of the middle east, the former Soviet Union, most of Turkey and the countries around the Persian Gulf. Collectively this area is referred to as West Asia and is one of the cradles of civilization.

Percussionist Okay Temiz was born in the small European part of Turkey, the city of Istanbul. He, however, received his musical training in the capital of Ankara which is situated in Asia Minor or Anatolia. His unique blend of local folk music and jazz, therefore, has been informally known as Anatolian jazz. Although most of his career has been spent in Sweden he often relied heavily on his native influences in his music. He is, of course, known best for his collaborations with South African expat musicians, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and bassist Johnny Dyani. Temiz's best fusion effort of Anatolian folk and jazz is his superb Zikir (Sun Records 1979). On it Temiz demonstrates his superlative instrumentalism on a kaleidoscopic variety of percussion instruments. Contrasting the sounds of the ney, the middle eastern flute, and soprano saxophone also gives the music a haunting romanticism while the rhythm section lays down infectious and complex beats.

The part of Western Asia that today comprises of the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan is known as the Levant. Being on the crossroads between east and west Levantine music has a unique and easily recognizable cadence and sound. It is also very amenable to improvisational flourishes. One of the pioneers and premier practitioners of the mélange of jazz and classical Levantine traditions is the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. Born in Lebanon and based in Germany, Abou Khalil has recorded several albums of this unique style. Although his latter discs tend to incorporate other folk styles and less jazz, his most representative work of Levantine jazz remains Blue Camel (Enja 1992). On it he collaborates with altoist Charlie Mariano and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and produces sublime music, simultaneously contemplative and dramatic, intimate and expansive.

The last recording in this article comes from Iran and was created by the Utah native, ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Miller. After receiving a Fulbright scholarship Miller spent 7 years in Iran from 1969-1976. He studied Persian music with its regional variations as well as Afghan folk traditions. He hosted a TV show about music in Tehran in 1970s under the stage name of Kurosh Ali Khan. Prior to his sojourn in Iran he had already released a record Oriental Jazz (Creole Stream Music, 1968). This intriguing disc, despite its unimaginative title, ingeniously blends Iranian songs with jazz sensibilities. Due to its limited release and high caliber artistry it remains a much sought after collector's item. The music within is exquisite and thrilling.

John Huie
Shanghai Jazz

Joe Harriott/John Mayer
Indojazz Fusions

Toshiko Akiyoshi

Hideo Shiraki
Sakura, Sakura

Yosuke Yamashita

Eddie Munji III
Pinoy Jazz Vol. 1

Tran Manh Tuan
Jungle Lullaby (Ru Rung)
(Self Produced)

Okay Temiz

Rabih Abou-Khalil
Blue Camel

Lloyd Miller
Oriental Jazz
(Creole Stream Music)

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