"Self Affirmations, Surprises Highlight Asian American Jazz Festival" from Kirk Silsbee with Downbeat

Strictly speaking, what was billed as the First Annual Asian-American Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, Oct. 3G-Nov. 1,2009, wasn't actually the first, as an unrelated effort took place in 1988. But impresario Paul lm strove to make his the premiere event of its kind. Hong Kong-bom lm even hocked his alto saxophone to help finance this spirited three-day event in Little Tokyo, which drew musicians from as far away as Korea. The unspoken dialectic of the far-reaching booking policy opened the issue of what exactly constitutes Asian-American jazz. Saturday at Cafe Metropol, Celia La sang selections from the Great American Songbook, but her new charl on James Taylor's "Fire And Rain" was a pleasant surprise. Tenor saxophonist Hitomi Oba proved a fluid improviser who can swing on material with many temperatures. Her stripped-down trio of bass, drums and Nick DePinna's trombone made for unusual combinations as well as unpredictable strxctures.

Japan-bom, classically trained pianist Matoko Honda was also fulI of surprises. Improvising on a fisherman's folk song with a piece of glass resting on the middle-register strings, she produced Kurl Weill-like harmonies. A koto augmented her rhydrm section and dancer Midori Makino supplied a visual element. Veteran drummer Bert Karl played somber mallets to plucked piano mrd koto strings in a spacey exchange. Makino reemerged in a black sheath dress to supply flamenco accents to a rolling crescendo closer.

Pianist Bryan Wong's ensemble set used demanding time signatures like 13/8; his elliptical piano and the thoughtful use of space in his anangements would be at home on ECM. Yet Wong also likes to bum. Kai Kurosawa's electric bass foray on "Eucalyptus" was more than up to the bright tempo.

Sunday's action moved to the auditorium of the Japanese American National Museum. Gary Fukushima's variation on the posrBill Evans piano trio fonnat revealed prodigious classical training and an elastic sense of time and dynamics. In contrast to the cerebral pianist, Filipino vocalist Mon David was fulI of passion. He moved between romantic baliadeer, interpreter of Pompangan folk melodies and stops-out scat singer, and his intensity was tangible on "Footprints." Pianist Tateng Katindig, big-toned bassist Dominic Thirour and the protean drummer Abe Lagrimas matched David lbr intensity. They swung hard yet still touched the heart with tunes like Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away."

Korea's Prelude trio had a few surprises as well. Front man sa-rophonist Richard Rho has a touch of standup comic, which offsets pianist Heean Ko's attractive tunes. The pentatonic "Breezin' Up" is like much of Korean music, albeit swinging in six.

Charmaine Clamore, another passionate Filipina, took on Jon Hendricks' lpics to Horace Silver's swinging "Doodlin"' as well as the Lenny Welch version of Buddy Johnson's heartpounding "Since I Fell For You." She's an exuberant performer, never more so than on her Tagalog words of 'Jazz-a-pino" matings. 'My Funny Brown Valentine" was an added bit of ethnic affirmation.

Japanese piano phenom Hiromi, whose showmanship matches her virtuosiqr, closed the weekend. Supersonic stride, some outright pounding, a "Minute Waltz" variant, eclecticism gone wild-all went into her kitchensink set. Her musical mastery was never in questron. Hiromi's taste though, isn't for everyone. Still, she received a 1ong, standing ovation. As to the definition of Asian-American jazz, the answer seemed to be that it's an evolving proposition, as personal and distinct as each bandleader and soloist.

by Kirk Silsbee, for Downbeat, JANUARY 12, 2010