Creative music has historically provided a platform for uniting its participants, not only relying on but encouraging individuals with unique backgrounds and disparate traditions. It is a universal language that allows for constructive discourse with everyone on equal footing. Witnessing the dialogue between musicians spontaneously creating on the spot is quite literally the democratic process in action. So, with the turmoil of the U.S. political environment and democracy at stake, where better to turn than to someone who sets by example, with inclusiveness and a democratic approach and concept for creativity being priorities. Enter bassist Tatsu Aoki’s The MIYUMI Project, one of the first Asian American / African American collaborative music projects in Chicago, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since the release of the eponymously titled The MIYUMI Project, the group has forged a special Afro-Asian musical hybrid in the intervening two decades, successfully fusing the Japanese taiko drumming tradition with first class improvisers (many from Chicago, where Aoki has been based since the late ‘70s). And to celebrate and commemorate this trailblazing, still active band, we now have this outstanding release with cherry-picked selections from MIYUMI's vast discography including a previously unreleased live bonus track.
During the ‘70s Aoki was an underground Tokyo experimental artist interested in the American avant garde and influenced by a fascinating cross-section of bassists - from Charles Mingus and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Malachi Favors, to rock ‘n rollers such as Kenny Gradney (Little Feat), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Dee Murray (Elton John). Moving to the U.S. from his native Japan in 1977, eventually to Chicago in 1979, he would work extensively with Windy City tenor saxophone legend Fred Anderson. In 1997 Aoki’s collaboration in the Power Trio (At Unity Temple, Asian Improv) with two members of the lauded AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) – woodwind specialist Mwata Bowden (one of Aoki’s longest musical associations) and drummer/percussionist Afifi Phillard (Sun Ra alumnus and Aoki mentor) - marked the unofficial inception of his MIYUMI concept.
The MIYUMI Project was named after the bassist’s third child. “Every time my kid was born, I made an album for each of them,” said Aoki, “but when Miyumi was born, instead of producing an album for her, I named the whole band after her because you know how immigrant families come to America and you sort of have this identity debate about who you are: the longer you stay you become an American, and eventually – in my case - you become Asian-American. By the time she was born I realized my family was now post-war immigrant Japanese American / Asian American. So to commemorate that awakening and awareness I named the whole band with this concept.” From the group’s first album the taiko drumming influence was an undeniable element, Aoki infusing Japanese-influenced aesthetics of accompaniment within the rhythm section, carrying his concept of time into, through and underneath the music as an essential and, as importantly, natural thread. An integral part of his rhythm section, Aoki as bassist has shown empathy towards the drum traditions of Japanese taiko and jazz, and his music and approach incorporates the drummer languages of each. From the group’s first album he plays bass and taiko drum on “Early Dance”, sharing an otherworldly ethnic influence with Bowden playing didgeridoo, double-reed specialist Robbie Hunsinger on the Chinese shenai, Hide Yoshihashi on taiko drum and Paul Kim on Korean buk drum. (Elsewhere on the group’s debut recording the taiko influence is further intensified by Patti Adachi on taiko and Yoshihashi on shime, a high-pitched, small Japanese drum).
On “Now” (the first of a four-part suite from Rooted: Origins of Now), Aoki’s concept fully matured with the introduction of his taiko combo (Hide Yoshihashi, Jason Matsumoto, Ryan Toguri) and drum kit (Mia Park) with brass and reed improvisers plus strings (bass, cello and violin). Commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the organic big band suite represents the first-ever Asian American large ensemble produced in Chicago. As Aoki says, “It was historic!” and showcases the essential components of MIYUMI’s uniqueness: crazy, atonal saxophone parts mixed with spacey time over the underlying foundation of taiko drumming.
“And Then They Came For Us” (the opening – and title – track to MIYUMI’s 2017 album) - a solemn-played feature for violinist Jonathan Chen and AACM-er Ed Wilkerson (on clarinet) - was a commissioned soundtrack for which Aoki created a soundscape dedicated to the incarceration of over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. A noticeable addition to the ensemble is electric guitar (Rami Atassi); Tatsu’s daughters Kioto Aoki (taiko and percussion) and Miyumi Aoki (bamboo flute) also join. The percussive-heavy, fading out “End Credit” was used on the soundtrack as well, though recorded separately from the album’s sessions, and features Wilkerson once again plus Bowden and drummer Dushun Mosley.
“Killer E” (from The MIYUMI Project Reduction Ensemble) is named after woodwind specialist Wilkerson. Kioto Aoki is the sole taiko player in this more compact quartet version of MIYUMI (typically four to nine instrumentalists, though as large as 20 for Chicago Jazz Festival 2016). The arco cello / staccato bass dynamic plus subtle, sympathetic taiko contribution - counterintuitive to its customary physical, flamboyant tradition - sets the groundwork and springboard for Wilkerson’s quite killer, yet contemplative tenor sax solo.
“An Eye Opener For Angels” (from Raw and Alive, Volume II) has the full taiko ensemble, with Noriko Sugiyama and Tatsu’s children (Eigen, Kioto and Miyumi). The leader’s deep bass tones fill spacious cavities while encouraging reedmen Bowden and Wilkerson to freely improvise on the extended, hypnotic number emphasizing the band’s dichotomy of collectivity and individuality. On “Takeda and Yoko Noge” (from the same album), cellist Kempkers has seemingly perfected the Japanese-influenced arco approach to his instrument, reminiscent of the traditional Japanese kokyū but with a warmer, richer sound. On both these selections Kempkers and Tatsu are omnipresent and free up the taiko drum core (plus conga player/percussionist Coco Elysses), which complements with precision – and are likewise complemented by – Avreeayl Ra’s malleted drumming, cymbal splashes and percussive hi-hat touches. Bowden notes that over time, “MIYUMI’s taiko drummers have grown and developed the flexibility of adventurous experimentation. They can free up and go with soloists or free up their own rhythm with an elasticity, incorporating a dynamic into their drumming to allow them to be a part of the taiko or the jazz.” Avreeayl has worked with everyone from Sun Ra to New Orleans giants Professor Longhair, James Booker and Kidd Jordan and here shows why he has been such a central rhythmic force in MIYUMI, serving as conduit between the typically more rigid taiko beats and jazzier elements of reeds.
“Episode One” (from Re:ROOTED) opens with a two-minute taiko quartet introduction followed by saxophone trio: Bowden (baritone), Jeff Chan (tenor) and Francis Wong (soprano), each with impressive solo turns. The taiko drummers under Aoki’s guidance have brought the bassist’s influence of Sun Ra to the forefront, integrating an Arkestral approach, while the leader’s bass playing is a resonating extension of the taiko beats.
The previously unreleased “Dinner Plate, Diner Dish” (recorded live in 2014) finds Kempkers sawing cello spurred on by a triumvirate of percussion - Ra (drum kit), Kioto Aoki (taiko drum), Elysses (percussion) -before paving the way for Wilkerson. This selection serves as an appropriate album coda while leaving the door ajar for what lies ahead for The MIYUMI Project and its esteemed leader and music ambassador Tatsu Aoki. Did someone say politics?!
-Laurence Donohue-Greene (Managing Editor, The New York City Jazz Record)
released November 20, 2020
All compositions and arrangements by Tatsu Aoki (Asian Improv Music Pub. Co. / ASCAP) except "Takeda and Yoko Noge" (Traditional, arranged by Tatsu Aoki, Asian Improv Music Pub. Co. / ASCAP)
Album concept: Tatsu Aoki and Matt Pakulski, FPE
Tracks chosen and ordered by Matt Pakulski
Original recordings provided by Caleb Willitz and Bradley Parker-Sparrow
Mastered for this release by Bob Weston
MIYUMI Project bass player logo by Miyumi Aoki
Cover art and graphic design by Al Brandtner, Brandtner Design
Cover art adapted from original photograph by Lisa Ann Yount (Flickr cco 1.0 public domain dedication)
Produced by Tatsu Aoki
Executive Producer: Matt Pakulski
Special thanks to all band members for the creative music and spirits, Tsukasa Taiko, Asian Improv aRts, Bradley Parker-Sparrow & Joanie Palatto, Miho Sato, Lauren Deutsch, Yukiko Aoki, Caleb Willitz, Rika Lin, Mike Reed, Laurence Donohue-Greene, Andrew Nicolaou, Bob Weston, Al Brandtner, Matt Pakulski, and everyone who has supported and continues to support our musical journey.