Jazz way out: Anthony Brown’s Asian-American Orchestra takes on Coltrane

Boston Globe, September 17, 2010

Each year in the fall, a Boston ritual that is unique in the country gathers fans, musicians, and seekers moved by the music and spirit of John Coltrane, who died in 1967 leaving an emotional legacy that sets him apart from other titans of modern jazz.

The John Coltrane Memorial Concert, started in 1977 in a loft called Friends of Great Black Music and hosted by Northeastern University since 1986, is the nation’s preeminent long-running Trane celebration. Run by a cadre of veteran Boston musicians and featuring guests from Trane associates Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner to the late hip-hop MC Guru, the concert each year opens new windows onto Trane’s work and vision.

This year’s edition, tomorrow at Northeastern’s Blackman Theatre, follows another trace that Trane left on his interrupted journey. It features the Asian American Orchestra, a path-breaking West Coast ensemble that joins instruments and ideas from jazz and the musical traditions of East and South Asia.

The program, titled “India & Africa: A Tribute to John Coltrane,” is a new suite (premiered last year in Oakland, and to be released next week on CD) that follows similar treatments the orchestra has given to Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

But Coltrane is a special challenge, says Anthony Brown, the drummer and musicologist who founded the orchestra 13 years ago. “This project is one of the great aspirations that I’ve had, but I never felt comfortable enough to take it on,” Brown says by phone from his Berkeley home.

That’s because Coltrane in his late years (if one can use that term for an artist who died at 40) seeded his music with geographical references, titling songs “India,” “Africa,” “Liberia,” “Dakar” and so on. He took a keen interest in musical and spiritual systems from these regions. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and percussionist Babatunde Olatunji were friends and inspirations.

“With Trane, there is such a wealth of influences,” says Brown. “It’s the same with Ellington, but with Trane, he’s already signaled his intentions.”

But Coltrane refrained, for instance, from using Asian instruments in his music, and the influences are more conceptual than grounded in technique.

Brown’s orchestra takes the next step, addressing a suite of Coltrane works with traditional jazz instruments but also the Japanese shakuhachi, Chinese sheng, Indian sarod, and percussions from all three continents. Coltrane’s “India,” for instance, moves into a duet between Steve Oda on sarod and Dana Pandey on tablas that could feature in a North Indian concert, before reemerging with the full ensemble as a reprise.

Coltrane’s “Living Space” receives a treatment based on Gagaku, the ancient Japanese court music, which Brown explains has deep roots in India. “Ole,” with its flamenco coloring, evokes Roma (gypsy) culture, which also traces to India.

But Brown’s project represents more than an erudite game of connect-the-dots. It is also a contemporary piece from a Bay Area scene where cross-fertilization of Asian and African-American influences has occurred for decades.

“The Asian American jazz movement comes out of activism in the late 1960s,” Brown says. “There were always Asian jazz bands with black people in them. That has always been the determinant out here.”

Brown himself is half-Japanese and half-African-American. When he arrived in the Bay Area in 1980, he says, he felt comfortable, his mix of roots and memories no longer an outlier. His orchestra, with a large and shifting membership – there will be 11 players in tomorrow’s show – is diverse by race and gender.

“We’re really mixed,” Brown says. “It’s a group with women, a group with Bay Area demographics. On the West Coast there is a strong Asian influence. We’re getting people in synch with how this demographic shift is going to manifest itself.”

For the concert’s organizer, saxophonist and Northeastern professor Leonard Brown (not related to Anthony), the group will “breathe new life” into the annual event. The orchestra, he says, goes far beyond a fusion project or ornamenting jazz with Eastern flourishes. “The chemistry is there that allows the music to go to some other place.”

Anthony Brown contributed to a new book that Leonard Brown edited, titled “John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music” It includes chapters from a dozen scholars and musicians, including WGBH radio’s Eric Jackson, who is also the concert’s host.

The book traces how Coltrane’s musical and religious roots in segregated black America – a fact of life in his generation, but often lost in the image of Trane as worldly seeker – in fact accompanied him and shaped his journey.

Book and concert alike illustrate how Coltrane still provokes ideas and inspirations 43 years after his death.

“There’s so much to hang onto,” says Anthony Brown. “Trane talked about brotherhood and humanity so much. He embodies that spirit of bringing everything in.”