If one were to ask a jazz musician or serious jazz listener in Chicago about Tatsu Aoki, chances are that they're aware of the Tokyo-born bassist, who moved to Chicago in 1978 from a brief stay in New York. "It was either (Chicago) or New Orleans," Aoki said. "In New York, I couldn’t get a good read on the pulse of the city. It was either Chicago or New Orleans. I chose Chicago."
Aoki is a virtual cottage industry in the Chicago music scene. He has released 28 albums as a leader or solo performer. He has appeared on over twice as many releases supporting artists like saxophonist Francis Wong, Art Ensemble of Chicago members Famadou Don Moye and Malachi Favors Maghostut, pianist Yoko Noge, and the living legends of Chicago tenor saxophone, Von Freeman and Fred Anderson. Aoki is adept in a variety of musical styles, from traditional Asian music to jazz to free form and newer creative music and standard fusion. Regardless of the outfit he is performing with at any time, Aoki leaves his own indelible stamp on the music.
Aoki is also the president of San Francisco-based Asian Improv records. In 1999, he served as the executive producer for Dr. Anthony Brown’s Asian American Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Ellington/Stray horn’s "Far East Suite," which earned a Grammy nomination. Aoki also has a long recording relationship with the Chicago label Southport. With Aoki as the link between the two labels Southport and Asian Improv jointly release a number of recordings a year, including Aoki’s Miyumi Project, an outstanding blend of traditional Asian rhythms and free jazz experimentation.
On top of all this, Aoki is the founder and organizer of the Asian American Jazz Festival. Now in its sixth year, the festival has provided a stage and audience for such musicians as pianists Jon Jang and Vijay Iyer, free jazz drummer Susie Ibarra, and experimental electronic percussionist, Ikue Mori. This year’s festival, scheduled for October 25-58, will introduce free-jazz violinist Eyvind Kang and her trio, Kazakhstan vocalist Saadet Türköz, and dance music masters Karma Sutra.
The centerpiece of the festival is a performance of a new Aoki composition, "Rooted: Origins of Now." The four-piece suite is the result of a commission Aoki received from the Chicago Composers Project, a joint effort between the Jazz Institute of Chicago, The American Composers Forum, and the Chicago Park District. Aoki calls "Rooted" a musical expression of the trajectories of Asian Pacific immigration to America, and Chicago specifically. The Tatsu Aoki Big Band with special guests Francis Wong and musician-historian George Yoshida will perform the suite.
That same weekend will see the release of "Non-participant + Milk" the latest release by Aoki’s band Tricolor, featuring guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble) and drummer Dave Pavkovic (Toe). I recently sat down with Aoki before a performance with Fred Anderson to discuss his influences, inner muse, and the struggle to get Asian jazz musicians noticed by larger labels.
JazzReview: With all the projects you’re involved in, how do you determine what musical ideas fit whatever bands you’re performing with at a given time?
Tatsu Aoki: " I don’t, really. When I play, regardless of whom I’m playing with, I always sound like who I am. I really don’t believe in scaling back, or conforming to a certain way when I play. I just try to stay within myself and play the way I am. You have to play the way you are- if you don’t you are cheating the listener."
JazzReview: What do you draw upon to influence your personal style?
Tatsu Aoki: "Freedom in my playing. I was educated rigidly. In school, we had to study classical music, which is great for learning theory. But, I noticed that there were no major Japanese influences with classical music; plus the teachers always told you to play the music the way it was written. I wanted to be a bit freer. Initially, I listened to R&B and it influenced me that way, somewhat. Then I found jazz. Jazz has a wider range of acceptance. They welcome all these different influences."
JazzReview: What else do you draw upon in your music?
Tatsu Aoki: "Asian music. It is the most influential (element), the Japanese influence. Growing up, traditional instruments- like Taiko and Koto--were part of the family. And I use Taiko extensively in Miyumi Project and the big band. But, it all winds up sounding like me."
JazzReview: So, you see no difference in your playing depending on the group?
Tatsu Aoki: "Not at all. It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing with Fred (Anderson), Tricolor, or solo bass. It all sounds the same to me."
JazzReview: How did the promotional relationship between Southport records and Asian Improv records happen?
Tatsu Aoki: "Asian Improv was barely making it (as a label). Francis Wong respects (Southport founder, BradleyParker) Sparrow because he’s one of the few minority producers who’s doing things his way and is successful doing so. I also have a longer history with Southport than with Asian Improve. I’ve been recording for Southport longer. It is difficult enough to be a small label and promote an album. This allows us to reach audiences we couldn’t reach otherwise."
JazzReview: Is it working?
Tatsu Aoki: "Somewhat. But, Southport and Asian Improv are still two small labels trying to compete against the big labels."
JazzReview: Was it that type of necessity that led you to found the Asian American Jazz Festival, also?
Tatsu Aoki: "That’s one of the reasons. The big (labels) need to be made aware that there are talented Asian jazz musicians and we hope to get them to pay attention to these things. They need to be made aware of someone like Jon Jang, who’s played with David Murray and Max Roach and is an excellent musician. Someone has to pick these things up and promote it."
JazzReview: Does it get harder each year to organize the festival?
Tatsu Aoki: "It’s getting harder because every year the festival gets bigger. But it also gets easier because we get repeat customers coming back to the next festival. I’ve been working on this year’s festival since last year’s ended. That’s a lot of time."
JazzReview: Do you feel that "Rooted: Origins of Now" is a further realization of the themes that you explore with the Miyumi Project?
Tatsu Aoki: "The only thing the two have in common is the Taiko drum. The difference is that in Miyumi Project the music is mainly improvisational, but the big band has way more structure. In Miyumi Project, (drummer) Avreeayl Ra is an excellent fit for the music because it is improvisational. With the big band, I needed a rock drummer to keep the integrity of the Taiko. This is why I have Mia Park in the band that has a solid rock background. Also, the time structures for Taiko and rock drumming are similar. Taiko drumming emphasizes the rhythm on 2 and 4; rock drumming is mainly 4."
JazzReview: How would you describe "Rooted"?
Tatsu Aoki: "I would call it ‘traditional fusion.’ I’ve always been interested in how newer music fits into traditional styles. It’s like watching on television the clearing of the rubble in New York. They’re using fiber optic cameras to get a look inside the rubble, but they still have a dog outside to catch any scents or sounds from within. They’re working together."
JazzReview: Is it safe to say that "Rooted" is anchored in the simplicity of the rhythms?
Tatsu Aoki: "That’s the main aesthetic behind "Rooted." In a way it’s similar to Tricolor, even though Tricolor is improvisational. I always try to lay down a bass line that is simple for Jeff and Dave to riff on top. I do the same thing when I play with Fred."
JazzReview: Fred Anderson is a legend in jazz, especially in Chicago. How did the two of you hook up?
Tatsu Aoki: "I met Fred through Sparrow at Southport. The first time I met Fred was the first day we recorded together at Sparrow Sound Design. We never talked to each other that day. We later started talking, and the rest is history."
JazzReview: Do you hope to see the day when there is no need for an Asian American Jazz Festival? Or, when a critic doesn’t use the word "Asian" when describing you or your work?
Tatsu Aoki: "I don’t think that’ll ever happen. I hope it does, but there are some musicians out there who still feel exclusion sometimes."
JazzReview wishes to thank Tatsu for the opportunity of this interview. For more information about Tatsu Aoki visit his website at www.avantbass.com and www.kzy.com/caajf