critics: Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre (2008)

event details

East Meets the Rest: Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project
Steppenwolf's Traffic Series, Friday, May 9, 2008

[press release / event details]

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

Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project:  East Meets the Rest


Chicago Tribune Jazz notes
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.

Chicago Tribune: JAZZ REVIEW

Chicago Tribune
By Howard Reich, Tribune critic
May 12, 2008

Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre

Few musicians have fused American jazz and Japanese folklore as dramatically as Chicago bassist/bandleader Tatsu Aoki.

Through his long-running Miyumi Project, Aoki has dared to pair avant-garde instrumentalists with thunderous Japanese taiko drummers, in effect linking two musical traditions otherwise separated by centuries and oceans. The partnership may seem unlikely, but at its best it can be exciting to behold.

The debut of the Miyumi Project on Steppenwolf Theatre's eclectic Traffic series over the weekend attracted a large house, perhaps because listeners anticipated fireworks.

Aoki and friends had something else in mind, however, presenting a more muted but still serenely beautiful cross-cultural experiment. Though at least one listener would have welcomed more of the incendiary musicmaking that the Miyumi Project can unleash, Friday night's performance offered lyrical pleasures of its own.

On one side of the stage, a choir of saxophonists dispatched tautly controlled jazz motifs Aoki had penned for them. On the other side, a corps of Japanese-American musicians swathed in ceremonial garb and playing taiko drums and other percussion instruments provided telegraphic backbeats.

Performing excerpts from Aoki's epic suites "Rooted: Origins of Now" (2001) and "re: Rooted" (2006), this version of the Miyumi band sounded more intent than ever on emphasizing parallels between two disparate traditions. While saxophonists Mwata Bowden and Francis Wong improvised on a jazz motif, for instance, the taiko drummers responded with surging beats and ethereal, wordless chant. Jazz improv and Japanese ritual merged poetically here, as if derived from a single source.

Perhaps the most eloquent and endearing moment of all occurred when singer Yoko Noge slowly paced the stage, softly intoning Japanese music of the 1920s, while American and Asian rhythms pulsed behind her. The Miyumi Project never sounded more intimately persuasive.


Traffic series performers move to a world beat

Chicago Sun-Times
May 9, 2008
BY PAIGE WISER Staff Reporter

Steppenwolf Theatre's Traffic series presents one-night-only performances -- but they pack a punch you won't soon forget. The May lineup continues the theme of what it means to be an American with a fittingly diverse group of Chicago artists.

This is storytelling through hip-hop theater, avant-garde jazz combined with taiko drumming and dance fiesta.

Here's the schedule:

Tatsu Aoki's Miyumi Project: East Meets the Rest (7:30 tonight)

Taiko drumming is similar to synchronized college drum lines. Just add a couple thousand years of history and subtract the marching.

Aoki has worked with pretty much every jazz artist in Chicago; he's recorded more than 100 albums. With his Miyumi Project, the bassist collaborates with a multigenerational band that includes African Americans. But the taiko drumbeat is an integral part of his Japanese heritage.

"What it means to be an Asian American is the most important essence of my work in general," Aoki says.

It's music that belongs in the "world" category, he says, and is a visual experience.

"I tell people, 'Come and see the music.'"