The release of the CD Ten in September continued drummer/ percussionist/educator/musicologist/Asian American Orchestra director Anthony Brown’s long career of combining music that reflects his BlAsian roots.
Born in the Presidio neighborhood of San Francisco to —who met in Isuzo, Japan, during World War II and are both featured on the CD cover—Brown has been a seminal figure in connecting the rich cultural jazz traditions as well as the folk and classical music of Africa, Asia and Europe, effectively melding Eastern and Western musicology that jazz is known for. Ten includes “Rhymes,” “Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire” and other favorites from the Asian American Orchestra’s first CD, along with new material from Brown’s original theater score for the American Conservatory Theater’s production of Philip Gotanda’s After the War.
As a youth who enjoyed San Francisco’s arts renaissance, Brown grew up enjoying the Asian American and African American musicians who flourished during that era, particularly Duke Ellington. Ellington, Brown says, “was influenced by all these different cultures, and he interpreted them in a jazz context. I said, ‘Why don’t I just take those instruments that influenced him originally and bring them back into his context and thereby try to give it a whole new perspective?’”
The Asian American Orchestra grew out of a project funded by reparations money allocated by Congress to compensate for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Beginning with the ensemble’s the Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire CD in 1998—a soulfully guided musical tour of life in the Japanese American internment –camps during World War II—Brown has worked with an evolving assemblage of players who share his unique musical vision, including bassist Mark Izu, who also plays Chinese mouth organ; world-renowned pianist Jon Jang; Hong Wang on reed trumpet and erhu (two-string Chinese violin); traditional Chinese percussionist Yangqin Zhao on Chinese hammered dulcimer; trombonists Wayne Wallace and Dave Martell; reed players Melecio Magdaluyo, Marcia Miget and Masaru Koga; and trumpeters Henry Hung and Geechi Taylor.
The title of his new CD evokes the ten-year existence of the Asian American Orchestra’s Big Bands CD. The “Rhapsody in Blue” track reflects Brown’s music diversity genius, with a cajon (Cuban box drum), Trinidadian steel drums and electric slide guitar in addition to trumpet, trombone and saxophone, plus Asian instruments like the erhu and shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Brown also plays a Native American drumbeat to reflect the Choctaw heritage on his father’s side of the family.
Another instrument in Brown’s orchestra includes the Chinese hammered dulcimer, which replaces the piano. “It’s the great-great-great-grandparent of the piano,” Brown said. “It just doesn’t have a keyboard, but it still hammers hitting strings.”
As part of its community outreach program, the orchestra will perform Nov. 9 at Rosa Parks Elementary School. Residents of Kimochi Senior Center in Japantown are also invited. Go to anthonybrown.org for more information.
Sam Cacas is the author of BlAsian Exchanges, a novel.
See his blog at beyondborders.asianweek.com