JEFF SONG & LOWBROW

Diasporama
Stellar Sound Productions STL 1012

Boston-area composer/cellist Jeff Song appears to have embarked on a protracted period of creativity.

His recent Trio Ex Nihilo disc showed his mastery of the miniature combo form, and now this excellent CD, recorded around the same time with a slightly larger group, extends his vision still further. Instrumentally he’s seconded by some of the better improvisers in his area, while the disc’s themes of identity and assimilation, are filtered through the consciousness of Song, who founded the Boston version of the Asian American Jazz Festival. Nearly every track here deals at least obliquely with the Asian diasporic experience in North America, without being either strident or preachy.

Mixing pointed song titles with empathy for the folks on both sides of the immigrant/native divide, Song is helped by a stellar cast of characters. Among them are trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, who is another one-third of the Trio Ex Nihilo, understated percussionist John Mettam, violinist Jason Kao Hwang, another person who has explored his heritage in music, and freeform cellist Matt Turner.

“Threats”, for instance, which deals with the peril white Americans seem to fear arises from Oriental, Black and Native American (sic) immigration, is built upon military-style percussion and ominous sounding massed strings. With a cello bow cutting across the strings like a dagger, the muted trumpet and ethereal flute seem to be the only sign of hope. Later you have to consider whether the final arco arch from the cello is one of acceptance or defiance.

A piece like “Amerikoritalish” with its cello strums referencing the komungo or Korean zither, mixed with dark bass flute portions and percussion, brings up race mixing which confuses or angers some. Meanwhile “Greengrocer M.D,” with its suggestion of thwarted ambition in a new country, comes across like a classical flute and cello recital created cheek by jowl with ethnic drum patterns. “Arirang for the Comfort Women”, on the other hand, which refers to a shameful episode in Japanese-Korean history, reminds us that racism wasn’t confined to this continent. Based on traditional Korean folk song, the meandering, melancholy melody utilizing Asian pop-style bass guitar (played by Song) contrasting with flute and violin parts that echo Imperial court music.

Mettam’s chameleon-like percussion, which suggests Latin stylings and Oriental court drumming at different times, aurally best illustrates the cultural miasma of North America in the title tune. It’s a serpentine composition that seems to turn itself, revealing different pitches, tempos and themes that introduce what could be maracas, arco finger plucks from the violin and dissonant flute playing, and which resolves itself as mid range and full bodied by the end. Couple this with tart, full-bodied electric cello lines and more conventional drumming and individualism seems to assert itself.

Don’t get the idea that DIASPORAMA offers no hope, however. Triumph of non-racially specific sounds appears to be the message of “The Third Wave”. Here Milesean trumpet, bird-like flute sounds and thematic scratched cello lines soon give way to full-frontal 1950s-style walking bass notes played in unison by Turner and Song, which are then succeeded by bowed and struck percussive asides from the cellists as Hwang elaborates the theme.

With the obvious thought that went into this CD and the talent involved in creating it, Song does himself and his music a disservice by naming the band Lowbrow. Certainly the conception and execution are as high brow as you can get while avoiding all of the supposed pretensions associated with that word.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. War Brides 2. Black Velvet Buddha 3. Abundant Relief 4. Amerikoritalish^% 5. Monday School+ 6. Siblings I, II, II 7. Cyan 8. The Third Wave 9. Diasporama^% 10. Threats: Native Clay, Atlantic Ebony, Pacific Copper 11. Greengrocer M.D. 12. Arirang for the Comfort Women*

Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum, Dean Laabs* (trumpet); Michel Gentile (flute); Jason Kao Hwang (violin); Matt Turner (cello, electric cello%); Jeff Song (electric cello, cello^, voice+, bass guitar*); John Mettam (percussion)