Monday, March 26, 2012

A year after the tsunami

Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kamaishi, Kesennuma, Fukushima… These places were suddenly placed on the map in the world consciousness on the 11th of March 2011. Before that fateful Friday, few people abroad had heard of these towns. Small as they were, together they still were home to hundreds of thousands of people. Only the largest city in the area, Sendai, might have rung a bell amongst those with an interest in Japan or world affairs in general. Having been destroyed by severe bombing during the World War II, Sendai had risen from the ashes to become a very pleasant city of more than a million inhabitants and the capital of the Tohoku region.
The smaller towns on the Sanriku Kaigan facing the Pacific had lived off the ocean for hundreds of years. Generations of fishermen had eked out a living in the sea and the area was the world leader in mariculture of oysters and seaweed. Sanriku kombu, nori and others set the world standard in quality and taste. Sanriku Kaigan had acquired new economic activities, including some heavy industry and notably tourism due to its unparalleled beauty, but much had remained the same for generations. That was much of the attraction in these ocean faring communities. On that cold early spring Friday, the ocean struck with unimaginable force claiming the lives and livelihoods of entire towns and communities.

Much has been written about the tsunami and the massive magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake that caused it. I wrote about it immediately based on reports from the media supplemented by scattered messages that were received from family and friends in Tohoku. There have been scientific analyses of what happened and why, as well as many reportages about the human cost, about people who lost everything, about survivors crowding into temporary shelters where they’d have to live for months to come. Officially, more than 15,000 people perished in the event, with more than 3,000 still missing.

What also received plenty of attention in national and international media was the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami. This sad episode revealed some unexpected incompetence and a dark side in the cosy relationship between big industry and the governmental agencies that are supposed to regulate it. These tensions continue till today, as the nuclear lobby and its pawns in the government have restarted the pressure to rebuild the power, while 80% of the Japanese people now favour phasing it out. But that’s another long story that I am not in the best place to comment on.

Just recently, I had the chance take a tour of some of the worst affected coastal areas. It was 1 year and 9 days after the event. Our friend, Takehiko Abe, living in the Iwate prefecture of Tohoku region offered to take us on a day trip to the coast. Another geographer by training, he shares my interest in the natural and human processes that shape the earth. In fact, Abe Take Sensei, as he is known, was Yoko’s high school teacher years ago (the ‘sensei’ part refers to the respect given to teachers in Japan). He picked us up with his Toyota Belta at Mizusawa town hall and we headed straight east across the coastal mountains. It was late-March but new snow was falling and the mountains rising some 800 metres above sea level displayed a tricolour pattern with the dark green of the conifers and the brown of the leafless trees against a matt of white snow on the ground. On the higher reaches as the winding road edged up the hillsides, the tree branches looked dreamlike covered with thick pads of white snow. In between, in the valleys, rice paddies glistened wet.
After some 60 km, we descended to the coastal plain along the Kesengawa valley. The river valley had provided a natural conduit for the tsunami waters, which had here reached 8 km inland wiping out everything low enough on the riverbanks with its force.

We arrived in Rikuzentakata, the town where the tsunami damage had been the widest, although there were towns where more people had died. The determinants of the death toll were varied, depending obviously on the geographical setting of the coastline and the settlements, but also on other factors. Abe Take Sensei explained that in Iwate prefecture, the population had been educated to drop what they were doing and immediately head towards higher ground when they heard the tsunami warning, whereas in neighbouring Miyagi prefecture to the south such education had not been given. So when the tsunami warning came, school kids and others in the Iwate towns like Rikuzentakata started running, grabbing smaller ones with them, while students in Ishinomaki in Miyagi were told to stay put in the assumed safety of the school building only to be swallowed by the waves.
Still, it was hard to see how anyone could have survived the onslaught of the waters in Rikuzentakata. Most of the city was built on the wide floodplain that seemed to go for kilometres before the coastal terraces rose above it. Virtually all the individual houses that had stood on the plain had been entirely wiped away. Not even their foundations could be anymore detected, as the bulldozers had pushed the unfathomable amount of rubble that had covered the land into high mounds that now dotted the landscape. In one place, in the middle of the plain, I saw the two headstones that had marked the entrance to a large house sticking up from the flat open land. The family’s name was permanently carved in the stone, but nothing else of them or their house remained.

Some of the larger and sturdier buildings constructed with reinforced concrete still stood, but were mostly only frames with their innards gutted out. Some, like the Capital Hotel that had held the prime spot on the waterfront, were so strong that it still seemed conceivable that they could be repaired. We stopped by the local hospital, which was gutted up to the 3rd and top floor. The flat rooftop luckily had been high enough to be out of the reach of the waves. Patients, doctors and nurses who had made it there had been rescued by helicopter. Close by, we saw an apartment building still standing. There the tsunami had reached up to the 4th floor pushing straight through the building taking with it whatever and whoever was inside.

Abe Take Sensei told about his daughter’s friend who had just recently moved to Rikuzentakata from Sendai with her husband and two small children, one of whom was just a new-born baby. The entire family had perished in the tsunami.

A visit to the city hall was heart breaking. The lobby, facing towards the sea but far from the water, was still full of rubble with cables and beams hanging from the ceiling. There was a crushed car, which the waves had washed in. On the floor, there was a pile of elementary school children’s rucksacks still full of books. A page from a photo album with faded snapshots of smiling children was lying amongst them. An impromptu altar had been erected at the entrance, with burning incense, fresh flowers and other offerings piled on it. Helplessly, I added my modest contributions to it. This was o-higan time during which, according to the Japanese Buddhist tradition, spirits return to the land. The flowers, drinks and food were placed there for them.


We drove up to a terrace behind the floodplain. There a Buddhist temple stood amidst a small forest. As is the tradition, the temples are usually located on higher ground and thus this and others survived the tsunami. The graveyard next to it had many new graves (including for pets) and people were there to bring flowers, buckets of water to wash the tombstones, and incense.


The tsunami also caused huge damage to the natural environment, which has gone—perhaps understandably, given the immediate impacts on people’s lives—underreported. The best assessment I’ve read about the environmental damage comes from my friend Vicente Santiago-Fandiño, a scientist with many years in Japan. Such irreplaceable loss was evident in Rikuzentakata, its Matsubara beach destroyed. The beach had been recognized as one of Japan’s most beautiful natural sites since the Taisho period in the 1920s. The 2 km stretch of sandy beach was lined with some 70,000 pines. The tidal wave left only one of them, a 200 year old tough tree standing. It still stands there as a lone sentry guarding over its fallen comrades, but its future is not promising. Despite efforts to protect it—it is testimony to the spirit of the Japanese that they would dedicate any energy to the tree under these dire circumstances—its standing place has become waterlogged with sea water and its roots exposed to the saline water are dying.

As we left the town and headed north on the coast the snowfall intensified, the wind whipping it sideways turning the bleak landscape into monochrome. The road took us through several tunnels till we emerged on the other side of the mountains. Here there was less snow and the weather was turning sunny. Ofunato was built along a long and narrow bay stretching north and protected from the open ocean by a thin peninsula to the east. The town and its port still had not been safe from the tsunami. Yet, the atmosphere here was somehow more optimistic and I hope it wasn’t just my own mood improving with the sun coming out.

We stopped in Fukkoo Yataimura, an area where prefabricated housing for shelters had been erected. In the same area, we were delighted to find, many restaurants and izakaya drinking establishments—even some clubs with live music—had reopened after their original places in downtown Ofunato had been rendered unusable. It was time for lunch, so we decided to have some here. The choice was—unfortunately—left to me, as it was assumed (partly correctly, I’m sorry to say) that I had the most food limitations in company. I regret to say that I do have some prejudices towards seafood that is not readily identifiable as fish. And that, in essence, is what the Sanriku delicacies consist of. Our previous visit to Sanriku had been slightly embarrassing We had stopped in Kesennuma—no longer in existence—which then was a major fishing port and the main centre of Japan’s shark fishing industry (I am not fond of that: most sharks are endangered and the Chinese fancy for shark’s fin is driving the despicable trade, which is both wasteful and inhumane). Abe Take Sensei had designs for us to eat a long and fabulous seafood lunch at one of the local places. The restaurant was great: wooden tables with no tablecloths, entirely genuine with no tourists around—and you could get any creature from the ocean, cooked or uncooked. Abe Take Sensei was ordering various delicacies—from shark’s heart to sunfish, mambo, with an odd, flat face—when I shocked him by asking for a simple grilled samma, a pike mackerel, common in any non-specialist restaurant and amply available in supermarkets. Till this day, I have a reputation in Iwate for having ordered samma teishoku in a superb seafood restaurant.

Well, I’d take such embarrassment any time if that brought Kesennuma back. This time in Ofunato, however, we settled for a small Chinese restaurant and sat at the counter. The lady running the place was very friendly, even cheerful, despite the fact that a year ago her restaurant had been destroyed and she had had to relocate to temporary barracks. The food the cook—her husband labouring in a small space behind some curtains—produced was very tasty. This time the meal contained no seafood. The inside of the little restaurant was painted red. The top of the counter was decorated with artistic calligraphy in gold drawn by hand with a brush by a Chinese volunteer who had visited the restaurant. The proprietor explained how the sea connected coastal areas in Japan since ancient times. The local dialect here, which she masters, is closer to that in Kyoto far to the south and west, than to the dialect spoken further inland in Iwate.

Continuing north, we arrived at Kamaishi, with a tall white Buddha statue, Kamaishi Dai Kannon, overlooking the city from a high forested cliff. 

The town is located in a narrow valley at the end of a bay. Thus it had been badly hit. “In this town, most people died,” said Abe Take Sensei as we entered the city. Not quite, but the devastation was still visible. The main street, running up from the harbour, was lined with buildings that had been gutted until the 2nd and 3rd floors. 
Amazingly, shops had reopened in buildings that were still operational. “Oh my, that barber is open,” Yoko exclaimed as she noticed the classic red-blue-white spiral marking the small shop squeezed in between badly damaged buildings. Around town we saw many stores that were open again and tempting customers. The reconstruction has brought to the area large numbers of workers—mainly men without families. The barbershops and izakayas would likely be in demand.

 The double tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami was horrible. Luckily the nuclear disaster, bad as it was, took place far enough not to threaten this area. Still, so many lives ended and so many others were devastated. The economy of the region and the country suffered an incredible blow. Yet, people and towns are slowly being reconstructed and bouncing back. 

This is not the first time Sanriku has been badly hit: in 1896, the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake caused a major tsunami in the region killing at least 22,000 people; then again in March 1933, another earthquake sent in a destructive tidal wave. One can only admire the Japanese people whose stoic discipline, organization and respect for other people and community has done what in many other places would seem impossible: cleaning up, building back, re-establishing businesses, restarting lives in the face of incredible adversity. Where one would not even know where to start and the enormity of the task would seem insurmountable, after just a year they have brought new hope to Sanriku Kaigan.

Monday, March 19, 2012

One Sunday in Mizusawa

At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning the silence was unspoiled. The dawn had barely broken and it was perfectly still. I lay in my futon under layers of blankets all covered by a thick quilt. It was cold in the room and the air felt fresh. The solid tatami floor under the thin mattress was good for my back that was stiff after a 14-hour flight followed by more than 3 hours on two trains last night. Yoko was still fast asleep in the futon next to me. Even her brother, Jun, and his son Hiromichi sleeping in the next room separated only by thin sliding doors, fusuma, made no sound. In Brooklyn where we live such stillness would be impossible. The bar across the street would have closed its doors just a couple of hours ago and there might still be some stragglers heading home after a night’s partying. Others would be up to go to work at some establishment or another that didn’t close for the weekend. Inevitably, someone would play loud cumbia music on his car stereo with the windows rolled down. There’d be traffic on Williamsburg Bridge and the subway that in our part of town runs above ground, the distant sound of which would mix with the constant hum of the big city. Such continuous low-grade background noise, I’m sure, contributes to the tense nerves and aggression of the contemporary city dwellers.

Here in Mizusawa, Iwate, no such background hum existed. In the first waking hour I heard two cars pass slowly on the street. A lone bird started to twitter outside of the window as the sun was climbing higher above the horizon. Birdsong was another victim of the urban noise. Ornithologists have been able to document how many songbirds have simplified their song as a result of the loud soundscape in the city; their partners are just not able to distinguish the finer nuances. Another loss to the diversity and beauty of life. The sun came out and I opened the shoji screens in front of the second floor windows. There were still patches of snow here and there—it had been a very snowy winter in northern Japan—but the day was going to be beautiful. I glanced at the temperature inside the room: +9 degrees C. It was time to turn on the heater in the corner. It came to life with a flicker and a click and at once started to spread warm air to the small room. The room filled with a pleasant smell of kerosene and the low purr of the heater. I could no longer hear the bird.

This was the first time I was back in Iwate since the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami a year ago. Although the epicentre of the quake was not too far from here—straight west off the coast—the damage to Mizusawa had been limited. The town lies far enough from the coast to have been spared from the tsunami. It is comfortably snuggled up in a picturesque valley between snow-capped mountains. The earthquake had been strong here, too, and the town was cut off from the rest of the country for a couple of weeks, as the train service was not running. Electricity had also been intermittent for a long period of time and it had taken days until the television was back on. But no-one had died and no buildings had collapsed. This old house in which Yoko grew up had escaped virtually unscathed with only a couple of minor cracks in the walls. I had thought it unlikely, but I guess I had underestimated the resilience of the structure—or more to the point, its flexibility. This elasticity of the old style wooden Japanese houses was now emulated in modern construction. Rigid structures are broken in earthquakes if their intensity is adequate—and earthquakes happen constantly in Japan—but if the structure is able to sway with the motion of the earth, it has a better chance of surviving. There is an old saying in Japanese: bamboo is the strongest element; it bends with the wind, but never breaks. This saying, although presumably referring to human beings, applies equally to buildings.

Breakfast was a traditional Japanese one. Hiromichi who lives with his mother Miho in Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido had brought with him a hokke, a mackerel type of fish found primarily in the Sea of Okhostk, which my mother-in-law grilled for us. Many Japanese today—including Hiromichi—prefer a breakfast of toast with eggs and bacon or marmalade, but a real Japanese breakfast gets you well prepared for an active day. We ate the grilled hokke with bowls of white rice and steaming miso soup, accompanied by assorted small vegetable dishes: pickled cucumbers and daikon radish, seri (an herb that comes out in spring), pungent leaves of wasabi horseradish. Fried fish, rice, vegetables, miso soup could be the backbone of any meal, not just breakfast. In fact, throughout history in most societies there would not have been specific foods for specific meals—breakfast, as we understand it in the modern West, is a rather new invention. Still, I would bet the majority of the world’s population—at least those who have enough to fill their stomachs with—starts their day with the same kind of fare they’ll be eating at other meals as well.

Jun looked tired. He works too hard and seldom takes breaks. He has made a successful career as a freelance stage manager specializing in ballet and opera productions, often touring the country with visiting troupes, such as the Leningrad Ballet or the Ballet de Monte Carlo. The pressure in the work is heavy and he has recently taken up a more sedate job in a theatre in Aomori. Jun is also a very talented musician, whose claim to fame does not rest with the fact that in the 1990s in Tokyo he was the lead guitarist in our band, Bête Noire. Jun had driven down to Mizusawa from Aomori, the capital of the prefecture with the same name north-west of Iwate. Instead of the expected 3 hours, the trip had taken more than 6, as there had been an accident in one of the many tunnels through which the highway passes (we saw the aftermath on TV; the driver of the car that had crashed with a truck stood no chance). Jun had left the highway and driven most of the way through country roads on the mountainsides and in the valleys. There had still been huge amounts of snow and the driving had been slow, but the landscape had been beautiful.

As we sat down with our cups of tea, a considerable tremor shook the house. Yoko rushed to turn off the main gas switch—fires caused by earthquakes are a major cause of associated loss—but the situation was over before anyone else had time to react. We thus resumed our tea and chat.

Mizusawa is no longer a city in its own right. Six years ago it was merged with the neighbouring city of Esashi, towns of Maesawa and Isawa, and the village of Koromokawa to form the larger city of Oshu-shi (population 128,000). In the process, Mizusawa was downgraded from city (shi) into a ward (ku) in the new constellation. In many ways, Mizusawa was an interesting case study of what was happening in small town Japan. There was structural change. At the time my late father-in-law Masayuki Takahashi had first arrived here, after the World War II, when Tokyo had been devastated, he had found a small but lively town, which was largely serving as trading and service centre for the surrounding countryside dominated by rice paddies and other agriculture. He had met my mother-in-law, Tomoko, a daughter in a sake brewing house in the small community of Koromokawa nearby. He would later tell, probably only half-jokingly, that he married the young woman because the family’s business guaranteed him a steady flow of fresh sake brewed with the cleanest water from the mountain streams. The city boy settled permanently into the quiet life in the northern countryside and both he and his wife eventually found jobs in the Iwate prefectural government from which they both retired decades later. Masayuki made his career in the financial administration, while Tomoko became a regional planner with responsibility for some of the major dams and reservoirs Japan built in the mountains during the frenzied reconstruction efforts in the 1960s through 1980s.

Masayuki passed away some years ago completely unexpectedly. Now there is a small shrine for him in the corner of the living room and every morning Tomoko lights up a candle and some joss sticks in front of it.

Despite its relatively small size—although, with some 60,000 people, Mizusawa would be a significant centre in many other countries, in densely populated Japan it’s but a speck on the map—Mizusawa was thriving. It got a shinkansen (or bullet train) station, which it shares with Esashi, on the main Tohoko line from Tokyo to Morioka. It’s said that the station is testimony to the Japanese politics of patronage: one of the country’s foremost political figures—and an eternal opposition leader, it seems—Ichiro Ozawa calls Mizusawa his home, although he has hardly ever lived here. Although the big man is often accused of arrogance and is not nationally popular, he is very powerful—and this is Ozawa country. He even sent a congratulatory message to our wedding at the Komagata Jinja shrine.

Mizusawa is also host to one of the world’s six international latitude observatories created along the latitude 39 degrees 8’ north originally to measure the ‘wobble’ of Earth’s axis. The town’s location in the mountains far from the dust and light pollution of major urban centres makes it ideal for observing the stars and its observations and data are still in use, even if the original mission has since been modified.

Today, Mizusawa has two sides to it. The main growth is outside of the old town centre. There is newer housing and many of the younger people with their new families have moved there. The main shopping centres accessible by private car are also concentrated there. Downtown Mizusawa for its part is more like a real town, with city streets and sidewalks lined with smaller shops and restaurants, mostly the type of drinking establishments known as izakaya.

We headed to the modern side for lunch in a popular restaurant named ‘Victory’, the specialty of which is a huge variety of sirloin and hamburger steaks in imaginative combinations. This would be a family affair. Jun and Hiromichi drove to the Mizusawa-Esashi shinkansen station to pick up Miho who was arriving from Hakodate. Our taxi overtook Yoko’s aunt Eiko and her husband Akira as they were riding their bikes towards the restaurant. Eiko and Akira have a long history in theatre and ran a successful event-organizing business in Tokyo, but decided to move back to Mizusawa for semi-retirement. The retirement bit soon turned out to be less than the foreseen half. In addition to the karaoke bar that they opened and by now have run for several years, Eiko has recently been appointed the director of Z Hall, a cultural centre that contains a main hall seating 1,500 people. Just weeks ago they premiered a massive historical play, written by Akira, that involved some 200 extras drawn from the local population to play the role of disgruntled peasants staging a revolt against the landlords.

The Tohoku region (consisting of the northernmost prefectures of the Honshu island: Fukushima, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate, Akita and Aomori) has a reputation of having an independent population opposed to authority. Tohoku was the last stronghold against the rule of the shogun in the 12th century. Esashi today has a not-so-minor industry for location shooting of historical dramas that are so popular in Japan. The currently running epic, Taira no Kiyomori, and the hugely popular Furinkazan a few years back were both largely shot in Esashi. The reason for this is that there still are areas that can easily be transformed to look like samurai-era towns. More importantly, there is plenty of unspoilt nature—mountains, forests and the beautiful Kitakamigawa river—that are not ruined for film by electric poles or other modern features.

Having spent the afternoon in one of the major shopping malls, Aterui, we returned home to rest. As the evening was falling, Yoko and I decided to take a stroll to the town centre for a cup of coffee. Silence had again fallen with the setting sun. The shops on the main street were closing for the day. On a Sunday evening, the centre was almost deserted. In the coffee shop, a young couple were smoking. A few of the izakayas were open and I could see people entering. A group of girls in miniskirts looked cold as they were chatting in front of the Maple department store.

As we returned home, it was time for the third full meal of the day. The Japanese take food seriously, as testified by the numerous cooking and local food programs on TV at any time of any day. Food is the most common topic of discussion, like the proverbial weather for the Englishmen. Virtually every woman and many men take pride in being proficient cooks. Attention is paid to the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and it is important to vary them according to season. Eating on the go is considered a sacrilege and the closest one gets to fast food in Japan is sushi. In these parts, however, one can go weeks and months without sushi or sashimi. Iwate grows cattle, which produces fabulous cheeses and other milk products. Maesawa beef is second only to Kobe beef in reputation. I couldn’t think that I’d be able to eat yet another meal, but the hot ramen noodles in savoury broth were delicious, as was the Maesawa beef salad served with spicy soy sauce and washed down with cold beer. The meal was rounded off by juicy mandarin oranges, mikan, that are a staple of Japanese winter. It was cosy to sit around the kotatsu, a heated space underneath the table that keeps one’s feet and legs warm in the unheated house. The same elasticity that makes the houses endure earthquakes ensure that there is enough of fresh air blowing through the windows and doors to keep the inside temperature close to that outside. The kotatsu, as Mugi-chan the cat would agree, is a wonderful invention that keeps the family warm and together.

Still jetlagged, I was ready to sleep, but there was one more mandatory thing to do, the ofuro. Most Japanese take a hot bath every night before sleeping. The bath tub is filled once with scalding water and each person staying in the house—family, friends, guest—takes a dip in his or her turn. People are very clean and everyone washes thoroughly before immersing in the hot tub. As the most senior male present, I had the honour of taking the first turn in the bath. I retired to the warm futon and the amazing silence in anticipation of waking up to a new bright and calm day tomorrow.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oh, Linda Oh!

The Harlem in the Himalayas nights at the Rubin Museum of Art are amongst the most innovative and enjoyable events in New York. They take place at irregular intervals on Friday evenings every couple of months, which is probably good. It would be nice to have them more often, but this way the quality and freshness of the music can be guaranteed.

On the first Friday of this month I headed there to catch a rising star in the jazz world, Linda Oh, whom I had read about but whose music I had never heard. The ground floor café space—spacious yet intimate—was slowly filling up and an extra cash bar had been set up in a corner, but many of the patrons were still browsing in the museum shop that, faithful to the museum’s theme, displays a comprehensive collection of works focusing on Buddhism and other Eastern cultural topics.

As always, the concert took place in the basement concert hall, which is not set up as your usual concert hall. While the stage is rather large and elevated like in a traditional theater, the chairs are arranged so as to allow for small tables in between for the audience to place their drinks on. When the doors opened just before 7 pm, a fair proportion of the people in the bookstore and lounge moved down to hear the concert. The audience was mixed in age, gender and ethnicity, which to me is always a great plus in itself.

Linda Oh presented her trio consisting of Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Tommy Crane on drums and the leader herself on the bass. She began the concert with a bass solo turning into a vamp that the two other musicians joined in. The band settled into an easy slow groove that immediately grabbed the audience with it. We would hear 1.5 hours of contemporary jazz played on purely acoustic instruments, with interesting harmonies and complex, ever-changing rhythms. Yet, this was music that people could easily relate to.

The Malaysian-born, Australian-raised composer-musician writes music that is both innovative and beautiful, often an elusive goal for contemporary musicians. Linda Oh hasn’t followed the usual path through Berklee College of Music that so many young jazz musicians now emerge from. Instead, she studied at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts. She then moved to the US and completed a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the bass. Her Aussie accent, albeit moderated by the stay in New York, was still audible as the sympathetic young lady introduced the music in between pieces.

Apart from being a technically and musically skilled bassist, what attracted me was her composing. Her tunes have beautiful melodies that appear deceivingly simple. The trio, with no instrument playing the chords, might appear somewhat limiting harmonically. Then again, the set chord changes played by a piano or guitar can also in themselves become a restriction for the musicians to venture outside. Consequently, many modern jazz players—from Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman to Dave Holland and Joshua Redman—have chosen the more open format. In this case, the Linda Oh Trio was in many ways having the best of both worlds. While they created ample space for adventurousness, there was also structure and harmony in the music. The melodies were often played by the trumpet and the bass together or alternately, in unison or in harmonies. In addition, Linda Oh herself would frequently use double-stops on her bass to create chords. When she soloed, Akinmusire would add long notes or punctuations to back her up like a piano paper might do.

Tommy Crane whose long hair covered his facial expressions for much of the evening proved himself a creative drummer in tune with the other musicians. He used the full arsenal of his small drum kit in a sensitive, albeit at times a bit busy way, alternating between the sticks and the brushes. From my vantage point sitting at the front slightly behind him, I could observe his dexterity and I in particular admired his use of the bass drum to accentuate the meandering music. The rhythms would move between free-flowing rubatos, straight rides and taut hi-hat beats (à la Jack de Johnette), often within the confines of the same song.

Linda Oh’s pieces are tightly structured and written through, largely avoiding the traditional theme-solos-theme structure. It was a pleasure to observe the tiny cues—a slight nod or simple eye contact—that signaled the change of pace or mood or the entry of another theme to be played by the trumpet and the bass in between improvisational passages.

Ambrose Akinmusire played some of the most enjoyable and original solos of the evening. Much of the time, he played modestly, in low register, with a soft but broad tone reminiscent of a flugelhorn, only to burst into sparkling solos in a bright broad trumpet sound. His use of the horn’s possibilities by way of tone and nuances was startlingly original and outright fun.

Apart from supplying the great material for the concert and leading the trio with a solid hand, Linda Oh also proved to be a bassist to be taken seriously. She has a fluid technique and beautiful natural sound. She used the whole range of the instrument reaching for the low tones above her head, while her solos and melodies often made her bend over to push the strings on the upper reaches of the fretboard.

Much of the repertoire this evening came from Linda Oh’s first CD, Entry, which features her compositions for the trio (while Akinmusire plays the trumpet on the record, the drummer is different, Obed Calvaire), but the band did perform some new music as well. Her second CD, Initial Here, is scheduled to be released in May and features a different set up, this time with piano and saxophone, and on one son another original performer with Asian roots, Jen Shyu. And on the new album we’ll also hear Linda on the electric bass and bassoon, in addition to her big acoustic fiddle.

But this Friday evening we were treated to a varied set of acoustic trio pieces, such as the ‘Morning Sunset’, the rhythmically enticing ‘Fourth Limb’, the quietly beautiful ‘Patterns’, the complex ‘Gunners’, and the bopish uptempo crowd-pleaser ‘201’. When the concert was over and I left the hall, the party upstairs had picked up. The lounge was now full of people and a DJ was spinning records in one corner. I decided not to linger but stepped out into the rain on the 17th Street with a satisfied feeling about the state of music in the world.