On Saturday I caught an Asian American Jazz Festival in the peace plaza in Japan Town.

I was excited about being able to see 6 straight hours of music in one place just a few blocks from my apartment, but I did not realize just quite what it would mean for me. I was not expecting a whole lot, it was less of a festival than a bill of a few groups throughout the day. It was definitely not the same as going to Monterey or being able to afford all SFJazz’s winter season, but it was definitely more live music at one time than I had ever consumed before.

Having all that at once helped me see what it is that draws me to one group of musicians over another. It is definitely how well they play together, and it is not only the level of musicianship that shows, but also how much a group has connected over time. I am sure chemistry is another factor, but that is not really something you can talk about, except to say that: it is there.

Gen Ryu Taiko played a few pieces first. I do not know much about taiko, but I hope that this is the beginning of my education because sitting down and really listening opened my ears. There is something very melodic in the way the drums come together, and learning that new taiko pieces are still being made (one piece written in the seventies had a very Steve Reich-ian rotating rhythm) has peaked my interest.

Francis Wong

Karl Evangelista and Francis Wong

The Francis Wong unit came on next.

What struck me first was Wong’s tone. His tenor sax reminded me very much of Pharoah Sanders in it persistent and cutting, yet powerful and smooth reedy quality. Then his playing, with its flurry of multiphonics, false fingerings, and trilling ornaments recalled Sanders as well. Yet throughout he was able to maintain a sense of melody that I do not usually associate with this style of playing. And the audience just ate it up.

Wong’s setlist consisted of some great originals and a few standards. I really appreciated his willingness to allow solos to unfold over a single chord for almost half of the tunes (including Naima, though I missed the rich harmonies in that instance). His ability to add energy and rich harmonic landscapes really came through in the mix of modal, straight ahead, and modern approaches.

The rest of the band included Karl Evangelista on guitar, John Carlos Perea on bass, and Karen Stackpole on drums. Individually they had much to contribute: each had at least one cadenza somewhere throughout the set, but I felt they left something to be desired in terms of the cohesiveness of the entire group. It may be my bias as a jazz-centric musician (they were definitely rockers, as evidenced by the last tune of the set, which may as well have been the Karl Evangelista power rock trio really blowing things over the top (in a good way)), but their playing together felt weak compared to Wong’s and when Wong laid out, there seemed not to be a consistency in feel.

Bob Kenmotsu

Bob Kenmotsu

Bob Kenmotsu’s group came on next, and satisfied my craving for a super tight straight-ahead jazz group.

Kenmotsu’s tone, also on tenor sax, was very much in the way of Lester Young in its clarity. The stark contrast between two players on the same instrument shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. His playing was glassy smooth as well, but cutting in his lightening fast accuracy and command over bebop and post bebop syntax.

The band this time, really stood up to Kenmotsu’s stature (he appears on records with Pat Martino, and Jack Mcduff). Hall of famer Vince Laureano (sp) on drums, Adam Gay on bass, and Bob Brumbloe on guitar masterfully backed up Kenmotsu on a mix of standards and originals. It will not suffice to say that they played on a level that I expect to see at Yoshi’s (the real one in Oakland) with their ability to play together with poise. The communication within the group was so solid that one did not notice it, and for the most part, each of the solos played off of the last and worked to advance the architecture of each piece as it was performed.

Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown, Masaru Koga, Janet Koika

Anthony Brown’s Asian American Jazz orchestra crowned the afternoon.

Here was a group that not only had great musicians, but had great musicians who obviously had a lot of experience playing together and were united by a strong concept or identity of what the group was.

Each of the pieces strongly evoked a piece of Asian history or imagery, often shifting from one frame of reference to another, effortlessly creating settings with a shift in texture, dynamic and pace. Hearing these pieces unfold, is the aural equivalent of watching river develop backwards. The flow is liquid and natural, but instead of trickling down from a mountain and turning into a rapids before slowing into a placid meandering river in wide banks; I imagined that the atmospheric expositions to be a placid lake that birthed a river that gradually increases in tempestuousness before being released into the ocean.

Masaru Koga’s wind playing (switching from soprano and tenor saxes to shakuhachi to flute to flute with a shakuhachi head joint) traded with Brown on drums, in leading these musical journeys. Their dynamic interplay demonstrated a united effort in achieving the loosely programmatic nature of the compositions, over Mark Izu’s tone setting basslines. Janet Koika and Yumi Ishihawa (sp) on taiko drums really acted in conjunction with Brown’s set playing, as if the trio were really just playing a single instrument.

Overall the whole day was a treat for me. There was not a bad group on the bill, and I learned a lot (for free). As a musician trying to choose between practicing, attending shows, doing promotions, staying healthy and paying rent, it can be hard to manage time, but I have to say: Six hours well spend.