Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band

Celestial Green Monster
Mutable/Big Red Media 001

A Brooklyn-based revolutionary Socialist and baritone saxophonist, Fred Ho can express himself as well in polemical prose as musical compositions. Dedicated to creating Asian-American improvised music that is both true to the jazz tradition and relevant to those committed to social change, his work incorporates Oriental and African-American vocalists, heavy rock rhythms and unexpected textures of specific ethnic instruments.

By any standards Celestial Green Monster is a major statement from Ho, with his compositions and others interpreted by a crack 17-piece band plus guests. It’s especially notable however, because, unlike some other politically oriented contemporaries, Ho has latterly developed a sense of humor to go along with his values. At least that’s what one can ascertain from the CD cover featuring an unclothed Ho – baritone saxophone placed strategically in front of him – colored a Martian-styled green. As well there’s the inclusion of such non-agitprop material as “Spiderman Theme” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at the beginning of the album.

Actually, while the former is a barely two-minute trifle given a fairly straight reading, the later is a 16-minute extravaganza which manages to pile Arabic-styled keening vocals and contrapuntal guitar licks on top of the already overwrought psychedelic theme. Here, Haleh Abghari’s Adhan-linked murmuring and throat twisting contrasts telling with Abraham Gomez-Delgado’s histrionic rendition of the tune’s original lyrics. Meanwhile guest guitarist Mary Halvorson’s echoing reverb, distorted riffs and fragmented down strokes add instrumental gravitas to a performance that otherwise rests on block chords plus fortissimo pulses from keyboardist Art Hirahara, muted brass stops and contrapuntal reed vamps that purposely reference early Jazz-Rockers Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. After a shout chorus, the climax mates whinnying baritone sax lines and an ejaculating crescendo of organ licks.

Other tracks like “Liberation Genesis”, “Blues to the Freedom Fighters” and the six-part, more-than-38-minute “The Struggle for a New World Suite” are more overtly political. But – especially in the extended composition – the dialectical profundity of the concepts isn’t hamstrung by ponderous music.

Measured and linear in performance, the instrumental work is secured within a compositional framework of layered and interlocking textures and tones. While most of the writing evidentially refers to Swing and smooth Ellington-like languid interludes, echoes of Beatnik-era soundtrack material is present as well. Subverting the conventions of commercial Hollywood scoring to progressive ends, it’s as if Peter Gunn’s gun has turned into a rifle used by a cadre during the Cultural Revolution.

Drummer Royal Hartigan’s back-beat ratcheting and the power-plucks plus the slurred fingering of Wes Brown’s electric bass are important part of this subversive strategy. So are the cleanly outlined solo sections, which encompass double-tongues, stuttering bass trombone grace notes, brassy triplet blares from the trumpet, honking squeals from the alto saxophone plus keyboard clinking and chiming. Varying the suite development with interpolated layers of reed and brass smears, space is also made for rubato patterning and color from the saxophonist, plunger pumps from the trumpets and reflux ruffs and native Indian-styled pounding from Hartigan.

The percussionist’s command of unconventional rhythm instruments also means that timbales and clavés are as valuable to Ho’s compositional vision as Hirahara’s discursive, two-handed piano lines, which concerto-like sometimes move from kinetic cadenzas to portamento note placement. Unconventional enough to refuse to recap the head, the final section of this extended suite at least suggests the exposition, with penultimate variants given over to snorting split tones from one tenor saxophonist and massed flutter-tonguing and overblowing from the other horns to intensify tension. On top of a snazzy Latinesque beat, the finale features a Stan Kenton-like spectacle of blaring brass.

Whether the Socialist Revolution will actually erupt in North America is no way a certainty – in spite of the ill-informed ravings of most right-wing politicians. But while he waits for its arrival, Ho can be assured that with this disc he has created first-class, social democratic if not revolutionary music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Spiderman Theme 2.-6. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (in the Garden of Eden)* 7. Liberation Genesis 8. Blues to the Freedom Fighters 9.-15. The Struggle for a New World Suite

Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet); Stanton Davis, Brian Kilpatrick, Samir El-Amin (trumpet); Robert Pilkington, Marty Wehner, Richard Harper (trombone); Earl MacIntyre, David Harris (contrabass trombones); Bobby Zankel, Jim Hobbs (alto saxophones); Hafez Modirzadeh, Salim Washington (tenor saxophone); Fred Ho (baritone saxophone); Mary Halvorson (guitar)*; Art Hirahara (piano, keyboards); Wes Brown (bass and electric bass); Royal Hartigan (drums) and Abraham Gomez-Delgado and Haleh Abghari (vocals)*