With the dearth of options currently available in the majority of American music stores, it is certainly an admirable goal to attempt to add to that landscape shades of other musical cultures, to broaden the vision of a hermetically sealed American musical consciousness. After all, so-called "world music," despite its outcast status on the hidden corner shelves of most US CD stores, is what most of the world has listened to for most of history. And while many Americans may be aware of a Bob Marley, a Tito Puente, or maybe even a Fela Kuti, the world of Asian music is virtually unknown to these shores. Certainly, within the jazz sphere, someone like Toshiko Akiyoshi has done a coy job of layering a couple of Japanese flavors into an otherwise uniformly jazz base; overall, however, very little genuine fusion of this sort has taken place. All of which would seem to indicate that American-born, Singapore-based guitarist Greg Chako is in prime position to open American ears to all the Asian musical tradition to which he has first-hand access.
Unfortunately, what Chako comes up with on Integration II, his fifth release, is a smoothed-over substitute for any true cultural communication. As noted, the elements are there - Chako has assembled a standard jazz quintet of saxophone, guitar, piano, bass, and drums, but added a vast array of exotic accompaniment, including a tabla, surdo drum, and even a didgeridoo for good measure. But it is clear from the opening melody statement on "Tokong Burung-Nazri’s Place" that these diverse elements are more of a surface effect than a true exploration of their potential. After laying an intriguing percussive base replete with rumbling didgeridoo, Chako, saxist Lyons, and bassist Christy Smith state the quasi-funk, breakneck theme, which takes its mechanical, technical maneuvers less from Dizzy and Bird, and more from prog-rock honchos Yes and Rush. Which would be fine, but when contrasted with the vibe so recently opened, sounds like two worlds struggling to be heard over each other, rather than in close and respectful conversation.
This tendency is most clearly exemplified in the medium tempo, smooth(ish) swinger "Fine Aussie Weathered." There is a clear and superficial break between the twenty seconds of percussion-backed didgeridoo delight that opens and closes with exotic enticement and the run of the mill hard-bop sandwiched in the middle. Without a doubt, Chako is an able soloist, dancing across the changes with changing tempos and fleet-fingered malleability, but his constant contentment to land on the pre-designated landing spots leaves little sense of truly inspired playing. Pianist Mei Sheum and tenor Greg Lyons counter with equally straightforward offerings. The writing and arranging shows a comfort with the voice Chako is developing, but its finger-snapping smoothness suffers from a lack of distinctive direction. Perhaps this explains the attempt to weld the other cultural qualities to its front and back ends, but as stated, the lack of true organic fusion is very quickly noticeable.
That is not to say that there are no pleasing moments over this hour-plus of frolicking, if too-tepid songs. On the contrary, an otherwise too-slick run through of "Afro-Asian Chant" exhibits extreme vigor in its second-half, building to a stirring tenor-tabla dialog that leaves harmony behind in favor of quick-witted trading of rhythmic phrases. Throughout, Christy Smith’s fat-toned ostinatoes create thoughtful bases on which to build, and Greg Lyons contributes winding, many-faceted solos. Indeed, Chako himself is impressive in the spotlight when he allows his jazz instincts to flow unchecked; it is primarily in his effort to refine them when the outcome suffers. Those tunes on which Chako seems to be focusing more on that process of Integration, like "French Island Fantasy" or "The Sweet One," are in fact the most forced moments of the entire disc; his self-styled smooth-funk mixes altogether unnaturally with the under-nuanced percussion and rhythm instruments through which it’s forced. In short, despite the claims of his title to the contrary, it is unclear to whom this disjointed disc might genuinely appeal: way too slick to hold the interest of those with an active interest in the exotic, it is also much too exploratory to settle comfortably with the fuzak faithful that might otherwise enjoy it.