Tatsu Aoki’s Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre

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Tatsu Aoki’s Miyumi Project at Steppenwolf Theatre

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

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.