Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble @ BAM Café, Brooklyn, NY, 12 November 2005

What a day! Only in New York City can you experience such a variety of performances in one day. This afternoon we went to the 1st Chinatown Asian Music Festival (see a separate posting); then saw two ballets, Les Noces & Petrushka composed by Igor Stravinsky, adapted in a contemporary fashion by the Italian Compagnia Aterballetto, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and then finished off the evening at the BAM café listening to a superbly entertaining performance by Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble. The Ensemble, led tightly through the occasionally complex arrangements by its leader, performed a unique blend of straight blown jazz, avant garde and funk, all deeply rooted in the traditions. Fred Ho has been a highly innovative musician, composer, arranger and bandleader successfully mixing idioms for more than twenty years ( Tonight’s band lived up to its multicultural title: three of the performers were of Asian origin, three of African, and two white. The musical mix was amazing, although firmly rooted in jazz.

The set began with a suite from Fred Ho’s (then called Houn) first album in the mid-1980s. The three-saxophone lead was strongly reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s harmonies, occasionally lapsing into a free format, while vocalist Jennifer Kidwell recited poetry. Next came a rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child beautifully and powerfully sung by Kidwell. Billie Holiday classics returned with Strange Fruit Revisited, a rather ambitious arrangement of the tune with the three reed players producing exhilarating sounds with interesting combinations, such as clarinet, soprano sax and baritone sax. In between the interesting interludes in different tempos and timbres, the skillful Kidwell was allowed to swing with the original tune.

The saxophones, anchored firmly by the leader’s thick baritone, provided the main timbre of the evening. Fred Ho is as solid a baritone player as you’d ever find in a band. I’ve always admired the sound of this large horn, having played it in various bands during and after high school (I hasten to add that any comparison of my playing to Fred Ho’s would be badly insulting to the composer and band leader). There are too few players who master the big horn. Fred Ho’s sound on the baritone is big and solid, and he plays the parts firmly and tightly, but seldom ventures into extended solos. The main solo role tonight was left for Ed Jackson, the versatile alto saxist who played the ensemble leads with a beautiful sweet tone and the solos equally fluently in a post-bop as well as free modes.

One of the highlights of the evening was when the band played excerpts of Ho’s Black Panther Suite, with allusions to James Bond themes, but in 5/4. Jackson blew some amazing lines in his solo. Another extended piece was the Free Mumia Suite dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist on death row since 1982 for allegedly shooting a police officer.

The band was then augmented beyond the usual jazz setting by the Japanese stringed instrument Koto played by Yumiko Ozawa. Her slender figure appeared on the stage dressed in a long pink dress that was more reminiscent of romantic Shanghai images than Japan. Her electrified instrument provided a colorful backdrop as the ostinatos she played blended with those by the leader on his baritone and the rhythm section. Fred Ho’s composition from the martial arts-sword epic Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon again blended highly original music with innovatively treated influences, such as quotations from the Juan Tizol classic Caravan played in 10/4 against an electric bass pattern.

The set ended with Fred Ho’s tribute to the recently deceased altoist entitled Sweet Sam Fernis that again highlighted Ed Jackson’s considerable skills and sensibilities as the soloist. The tune moved between sounds and rhythms ranging from swing to waltz to Latin beat.

The evening proved that Fred Ho is still one of the most innovative composers and bandleaders on the scene. His complex and skillfully delivered music is artful and serious; yet, hearing Fred Ho will guarantee that everyone in the audience leaves with a smile on the face.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You should check out the American Composers Orchestra (with Fred Ho) at Carnegie Hall this month.