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Yoshi's Oakland
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Jazz Club
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Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra - India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane

April 21, 2010


8pm show $20


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The GRAMMY-nominated Asian American Orchestra (AAO) has received international critical acclaim for blending Asian instruments and sensibilities with the sonorities and improvisation of the jazz big band.

The intercultural AAO was founded in San Francisco in 1998 with federal funding to support a national education program about the Japanese American internment experience during World War II. As the flagship performing and recording ensemble of the Asian American Jazz Movement launched during the student activism of the 1970s, the Asian American Orchestra continues the tradition of advocacy and activism for social justice in San Francisco Bay Area communities. Five AAO recordings showcase a distinctive legacy of innovative collaborations with guest artists from various genres and idioms including jazz, classical, world and popular music, performance arts and poetry. (http://www.anthonybrown.org)

John Coltrane (1926-1967) is recognized as one of the greatest musicians and humanitarians of the 20th Century, and the influence that his music had on San Francisco art and culture was substantial.  His recordings changed the very nature of musical performance, and his artistic vision and spirituality embraced the influences of cultures around the world. The twin themes of “India & Africa” reference two seminal extended works composed and recorded by John Coltrane, and reflect his most profound musical cultural influences. 

Dr. Brown has arranged these major works and others for the Asian American Orchestra, augmented with local guest musicians performing on instruments from North Indian and West African musical traditions for this important occasion: Dana Pandey on Tabla, Steve Oda on sarod, Pushpa Oda on tambura, and Kenneth Nash on African percussion.

India and Africa figure largely as themes in Coltrane’s work. His first two LPs for his new and lasting record label, Impulse, provide clear documentation of his musical direction and the influences which charted his new universal music. On the recording, Live at the Village Vanguard (1961), Coltrane features India, an extended work showcasing an array of guest artists exploring musical modalities.  His musical and spiritual quest was directed eastward through his encounter with the music of master North Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.  From Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, Coltrane learned about musical traditions of West Africa, his ancestral homeland.  Coltrane’s initial Impulse LP introduces Africa, another work featuring his extended improvisations. 

The bedrock of Coltrane’s influences was the music of his childhood community in segregated rural North Carolina and later in Philadelphia: African American gospel, spirituals, works songs, blues, jazz, and Rhythm & Blues.  Drawing on the timeless cultural wellsprings of Indian and African musical traditions, Coltrane fused elements of these musical languages with his interpretation of blues based jazz and Negro spirituals. This fusion of music genres culminated in his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme.

The cultural elements of this project are quite significant, both in terms of the influence that Coltrane himself had on the music of the San Francisco Bay Area, and AAO’s role as an innovator in Bay Area musical culture.  Coltrane’s influence on the local music scene is best exemplified by the photo that appears on the cover of the book, Harlem of the West, in which Coltrane is seen jamming with San Francisco jazz legends John Handy and Pony Poindexter at Bop City in the 1950s (Chronicle Books, 2006.)  In the 1960s, Coltrane became recognized as the most influential jazz innovator of his time, embracing an artistic vision and spirituality that blended cultural influences from around the world.  In September 1965, the John Coltrane Quartet recorded “Joy” from Meditations at Coast Recorders in San Francisco, a work that would become a hallmark of his later ”Free Jazz” period. 

Already recognized as groundbreaking in the jazz world, Coltrane’s 1964 seminal recording, A Love Supreme is also cited as among the most influential records by 1960s San Francisco “Summer of Love” musicians the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Carlos Santana.  In 2000, Santana stated at his GRAMMY sweep celebration, “The world would be a better place if everybody listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme every day.” In fact, San Francisco is home to the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

The India and Africa project is significant also because of the important contribution that the AAO itself makes to the musical life of the Bay Area.  The ensemble’s innovative musical style is to take existing jazz works that were groundbreaking in their time and further innovating them. This process began with their 2000 GRAMMY-nominated reinterpretation of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite. Their next CD, Monk’s Moods, a collaboration with late MacArthur Fellow saxophonist Steve Lacy and legendary producer Orrin Keepnews earned a five-star review and recognition as Best CD of 2003 by Downbeat magazine. The 2005 CD Rhapsodies includes a recomposition of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, completing Dr. Brown’s trilogy of homages to American composers. 

The AAO’s India and Africa project represents an extension of Coltrane’s inclusive vision by including instruments from the cultures that originally influenced his jazz compositions.  The project blends old and new to create and express contemporary realities.  This practice is realized by integrating traditional instruments, compositions, and performance approaches with contemporary practices and idioms, both East and West. 

The Orchestra was established on the principle of intercultural collaboration; always pan-ethnic and pan-Asian, intergenerational and including men and women as performers. AAO’s legacy has been one of community building and interconnections between and within various neighborhoods in SF and the greater Bay Area – the Orchestra’s “Bridging Japantown and the Fillmore with Jazz” initiative best exemplifies this commitment. In addition, AAO’s national profile and critical acclaim has brought attention to San Francisco's Asian American Jazz Movement across the continent and internationally through touring and recordings. 

The Bay Area is a wellspring of musical cultures, with a multiplicity of performing ensembles from around the world, and AAO represents the ongoing, intercultural collaboration within these various musical communities. As an ethnomusicologist studying and performing musical traditions around the world – and a former Explainer at the Exploratorium, from 1982 to 1985 – Dr. Brown has consistently maintained that Coltrane’s music globally inspired other musicians to EXPLORE music, particularly from a spiritual center. (http://www.fifthstreammusic.org)