Liner Notes for TATSU AOKI, BASSER LIVE II
Asian Improv Records 0067
By Jason Kao Hwang
Heard on ancient battlefields, in Gagaku theaters, incorporated in Buddhist and Shinto rituals, the history of taiko goes back at least 1400 years. In 1951, Daihachi Oguchi, ajazz drummer, modernized traditional taiko in Suwa City, Japan, by dividing complex rhythms into individual lines. This ensemble style is called kumi-daiko. Kumi-daiko became enormously popular in Japan, and later, became a musical icon of the Asian American community.
His cross-cultural experiments prefigured the direction music for the next generation.
In 1957, six years after Daihachi Oguchi's innovations began, bassist/composer TatsuAoki was born in the Yotsuya district of Tokyo. Through his father, a filmmaker, and mother, a traditional Japanese dancer, Tatsu was immersed in the arts from an early age, studying shamisen, a three stringed lute played with a triangular plectrum, taiko, guitar, piano and eventually, the string bass.
In 1976 he left Japan for Chicago, to follow a cultural journey as bold as Daihachi's ageneration earlier. He arrived during a revolutionary era, when writers like Jeffrey Chan, Lawson Inada, and Frank Chin, along with musicians like Russell Baba, Dan Kuramoto and Gerald Oshita, were asserting their political, historical and cultural identity as Asian Americans. Also at that time, Chicago, with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), was arguably the international center of free jazz, a music that embraced philosophies of individualism and third world nationalism.
In our early twenties, Tatsu, and musicians like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Fred Ho andmyself, were drawn to jazz as a revolutionary art, a location where Asian American identity could be imagined and affirmed.
Over the past twenty-five years, Tatsu Aoki has been the one of the most prolificmusicians in Asian America, recording seven solo, nine duet and fifteen ensemble CDs. Tatsu has performed with renowned artists like Fred Anderson, Malachi Favors, Yoke Noge and Mwata Bowden, appearing on over seventy albums as a sideman.
Tatsu Aoki's work with taiko makes total sense, not only because of his childhood training, but also for his community activism, both locally and nationally. Characteristic of the North American taiko movement, comprised of over several hundred groups, is the active engagement between musicians and community. Tatsu continues this tradition with JASC Tsukasa Diako, which Hide Yoshihashi founded in 1996 and continues to serve as Executive Director. Based in the Japanese American Service Committee(JASC), they perform regularly in Chicago community events and offers classes for all ages. Today, Tatsu is one of the directors and performers. The leader, Hide Yoshihashi, along with Amy Homma and Ryan Toguri, are the outstanding drummers of Tsukasa Diako heard on this CD.
Based in the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC), they perform regularly inChicago community events and offers classes for all ages. Today, Tatsu is one of the directors and performers. Hide Yoshihashi, Amy Homma and Ryan Toguri, the outstanding drummers heard on this CD, are all proud members of Tsukasa Diako.
Tatsu has also been a major contributor to the national community. As director of theChicago Asian American Jazz festival for the past ten years, and Asian Improv Records, the past six, he has helped to provide many Asian Americans artists opportunities to grow artistically and as well as gain public recognition.
Basser II, draws upon all facets of Tatsu's life - traditional Japanese music, jazz,filmmaking (he teaches experimental filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago), and community activism.
Zui Zui is based upon the traditional children's song Zui Zui Zukkorobashi. In Zui Zui, thesolo bass begins in octaves with motif in A minor pentatonic, plucked sharply near the bridge, sounding like a large shamisen. The motif transforms seamlessly into a blues riff, buoyant with an implied R&B shuffle. The shamisen and blues phrasing continue to shift back and forth, establishing a fluent cross-cultural language. Eventually Tatsu fragments phrases in painterly splashes in a manner reminiscent of the late pianist Glen Horiuchi, from Los Angeles.
Exploring bridges connecting blues and pentatonic tonalities is a major theme of AsianAmerican jazz, explored in various ways by musicians like saxophonist Francis Wong, pianist Jon Jang, and koto (Japanese 13-stringed zither) musician Mia Masaoka. This dynamic relationship between jazz improvisation and traditional Asian string music, heard throughout this CD, reminds me of another wonderful bassist, Mark Izu of San Francisco. Mark's koto-like (Japanese zither) approach to the bass began in the early 80's with the epochal quartet, United Front. Tatsu is a highly individual exponent of both major currents in Asian American jazz.
Patience begins with taiko drummers alternately playing slow, timeless strikes thatdramatically accelerate into thundering rolls. Soon the taiko and bass establish a groove in rapid unison, launching a bass solo that booms forth like an odaiko (largest taiko drum). An interlude of bold taiko exchanges ensue, punctuated with unison riffs. Throughout the music, the bass regularly invokes a rising four-note motif, as if asking a question. Patience is the answer as life hurtles by with taiko and bass ablaze with determination.
In Johnson Magical, the vibrato and touch of Tatsu's bass sounds like a human voice. Agutbucket riff reminiscent of Mingus, played with infinite variations, grounds the music inexorable progression. Tatsu attributes this musical approach to the Zashiki shamisen tradition, a vamp-oriented style that accompanies singers. In Johnson Magical, the ostinato riff is always alive, fulfilling dual roles of accompaniment and song simultaneously.
Most listeners know that the string bass, as "father" of the string family, possesses thelowest note of the orchestra. However, few people realize the bass, with harmonics achieved through half-fingering and ponticello bowing, owns the highest notes as well. In EsL, this enormous tonal and timbral range conjures magical and spiritual images. Taiko drums periodically strike, bursting through an eloquent bass landscape, before ritualistically retreating into an observant silence. A shimmering tremolo texture of high notes and harmonics conclude this highly cinematic journey.
Taiko Legacy was inspired by Kinara Taiko, which is based in the Senshim BuddhistTemple of Los Angeles. Kinara, founded in 1969, is one of the first taiko groups in America. In this solo work, the bass establishes a chant emphasizing the full ring of the low E string with octave reinforcement; the upper E played on the A string above. Again, the bold pizzicato attack is reminiscent of the shamisen. With a gentler touch, the open D string rings above periodically, like a cymbal struck with a soft mallet. The bass is vibrating with multiple pitches, like a string harp or koto. Eventually, dense improvisations grow from this chant, creating a compositional structure analogous to the earlier taiko pieces. The chant is focused, like unison drum phrases. The denser improvisations are like individual taiko lines locked into a complex syncopation.
As the titles imply, Shadow to Shadow and Uneven Bars are dialogues between unlikeforces meeting on common ground, which is the artist himself. In Shadow to Shadow, the "bass shamisen" is mirrored by taiko drums. Though with different vibrations, both share the physical attitude and focus necessary to project these phrases towards the goal of infinity. Uneven Bars is an entirely different conversation. Here Tatsu does his own thing, but with a jazz sensibility. The chromatically descending arpeggios imply a tonal center, a method of jazz harmony. The propulsive off-center accents are also characteristic of contemporary jazz. In Uneven Bars, the overall elasticity of the bass line is heard in dramatic contrast to the march-like taiko declamations.
Lacquer is an internal string bass dialogue. Open A string rhythms are rapidly exchangedwith serpentine, saxophone-like phrases played on the higher strings. This conversation has slight, breath-like pauses punctuating the flow, which eventually move into swing-time. The ease of this groove then gives way to funky string-snapping harmonics. Each musical movement is like a new layer of Lacquer painted upon a glowing, emotional object.
In Kioto, Tatsu proves he is certifiably insane, as I have suspected for a long time. Heplays the bass with a beer bottle to create a sound that is somewhere between a banjo, shamisen and bottleneck blues guitar. The taiko ensemble picks up the rhythm offered by the bass intro, and then becomes an accompaniment for Tatsu, who unleashes a bluesy, twangin', slip-slidin' solo. As the taiko ensemble takes over, we hear Tatsu on mic, happily introducing the drummers to the audience. Their appreciative roars of applause will tell you how beautifully the music connected to the people.
For the grand finale, Our Festivals, Tatsu puts down his string bass, picks up a pair ofbachi (sticks), and joins the taiko band in a bust-out groove that brings down the house!
This live recording at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art faithfully captures the music, excitement and fun of a memorable evening.
Jason Kao Hwang
Adjunct Instructor, Asian/Pacific/American Studies Department,
New York University
March 6, 2005
Reich, Howard. 2001. Chicagoans of the Year, Sixteen Inspirational Individuals, Chicago Tribune, 30 December
Jung, Fred. Fireside Chat with Tatsu Aoki, jazzweekly.com
2001. Tatsu Aoki, Centerstage Chicago, The Original City Guide, 6 June
What is Taiko? Overview and history, taiko.com/rollingthunder
Fromartz, Samuel. 1998. Anything but Quiet, Natural History, March