“It was a gamble, but East thrillingly meets West in The Miyumi Project”

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Chicago Tribune
By Howard Reich, Tribune critic
May 9, 2008

More than 30 years ago, bassist-bandleader Tatsu Aoki took an artistic gamble: He began combining facets of ancient Japanese music with freewheeling jazz improvisation.

Though rudimentary, those first cross-genre efforts of his, in his native Japan, eventually blossomed into the Miyumi Project, now widely recognized as a groundbreaking merger of music from East and West.

Because Aoki moved to Chicago in the late 1970s and quickly set about developing his Asian-American experiment, the Miyumi Project has become a symbol of Chicago-style jazz innovation. Its rough-and-tumble sound, embracing everything from funk backbeats to blues vocals to avant-garde improv, has attracted audiences across the city and around the globe.

But due to economics, Aoki usually presents a small-scale version of Miyumi, which acquired its official name in the late 1990s. The tiny budgets of most jazz clubs can’t support more than a compact group of Miyumi musicians: a few instrumentalists, a couple of taiko drummers, an occasional singer.

Come Friday evening, however, Aoki will get to stretch out, leading a dramatically expanded Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre, as part of its genre-bending Traffic series. When Aoki takes the stage of Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, he’ll be joined by a dozen instrumentalists, a consortium of teenage taiko drummers and others, for a program aptly titled “East Meets the Rest.”

“Only a few times in my life do I get to present all that Miyumi is,” says Aoki.

The opportunity is important, explains Aoki, because it enables him to explore a broad swath of Japanese musical culture, while merging it with the rhythms of his adopted American home. Listeners fortunate enough to have seen the Miyumi Project in its full glory—at the Asian American Jazz Festival in 2001 and at Millennium Park in 2006—will not soon forget the gripping power of this work.

Imagine incendiary jazz horn solos, thunderous Japanese percussion and searing blues vocals (provided by longtime Aoki collaborator Yoko Noge), and you have a rough idea of the sonic force of the Miyumi Project.

At a European concert last year, listeners heard “taiko drums speaking the universal language of the heartbeat,” writes Lauren Deutsch in her illuminating liner notes to Aoki’s newest CD, “The Miyumi Project Live in Poland” (Southport Records). They witnessed “the graceful arcs of wooden sticks moving as if in one breath by master drummers … Tatsu Aoki’s steady bass line anchoring the dual flights of Mwata Bowden’s searing baritone [saxophone] chasing Francis Wong’s taunting soprano [sax].”

For the Steppenwolf show, Aoki and friends will offer extended excerpts of his first great Miyumi suite, “Rooted: Origins of Now” (premiered in 2001), its intriguing sequel, “re: Rooted” (2006), and new vocal material developed by singer-pianist Noge.

Audiences often ask Aoki what the word Miyumi means. It literally means, he says, a “beautiful bow,” of the kind that a bassist would use.

But it’s also the name of his youngest daughter. When Miyumi Aoki was born, 10 years ago, it “really made me think that now we are an immigrant family,” says the bassist.

“It made me feel I have migrated here and my life is here now. … It was kind of an important moment of my life.”

And one that has produced a distinctive, often thrilling music.