|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Fred Ho
Fred Ho & the Saxophone Liberation Front
Mutable Music/Big Red Media 002
Fred Ho & Quincy Saul
The Music of Cal Massey (A Tribute)
Mutable Music/Big Red Media 004
By Ken Waxman
Revolutionary Marxist, convinced polemist and canny social critic, baritone saxophonist Fred Ho is all this and more. Critically, as these exceptional CDs prove, Ho’s high-quality composing, band-leading and improvising are memorable long past the point of agit-prop.
He’s particularly skillful in forging into music expressions of his beliefs that include the need for oppressed people’s liberation and the intrinsic beauty of indigenous African-American and Oriental-sourced sounds. Snake Eaters, a matchless demonstration of Ho’s talents uses only the reed textures available from a saxophone quartet. Via a larger sonic canvas available with 12 players, The Music of Cal Massey is even more spectacular, as Ho interprets compositions by Massey, another politically sophisticated improviser.
On the first CD, Ho’s Saxophone Liberation Front (SLF) – Hafez Modirzadeh: soprano; Bobby Zankel: alto; Salim Washington: tenor; and Ho – work in a manner midway between the ROVA quartet’s aleatory conception and the studied funkiness of the World Saxophone Quartet. Although the SLF’s sophisticated interpretive techniques are aptly demonstrated on a couple of Thelonious Monk covers plus a jokey “Misty” played as if was a soundtrack from Rob Zombie, the key components are two suites: “Yellow Power, Yellow Soul Suite” and “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism”.
Building on traditional Far Eastern melodies, parts of the first suite are surprisingly tender, especially Modirzadeh’s soprano saxophone lines. Most tunes however mix reed vamps and screeches with Oriental-sounding motifs to demonstrate Ho’s Black Music-Yellow Music cohesion. “Hero Among Heroes” is the major statement here. Fittingly there appears to be echoes of Amerindian sounds added to the Oriental and Europeanized narratives as the sequence balances the soprano saxophone’s angled oboe-like tone with quivering intensity from Washington’s and Ho’s hefty bottom tones.
Alternately mocking and celebratory, the four-part “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism” was composed by Ho in 1992, to point out that the Columbus quincentennial was no celebration for indigenous and anti-imperialist forces. Stand-out sequences include the exquisite stair-step saxophone harmonies on “Civilization or Syphillisation”, which follow a display of staccato vibrations and split tones with timbres ranging from the subterranean to altissimo. Another, “The New World Odor (The Huge Farts of Red-meat Eating Imperialists Foul the Earth)” features tongue-slapping mostly from Ho, aurally demonstrating what the title promises. Unsurprisingly, the concluding “Ghost Dance on the Grave of Capitalism” has the most joyous melody, as the four make this dance macabre sound like an invitation to the dance floor.
Zankel and Washington also appear on Present The Music of Cal Massey (A Tribute), joined by 10 others plus conductor Whitney George. Massey (1928-1972), best-known for his association with Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, was a Philadelphia-based trumpeter and Black Nationalist, who recorded sparingly. Ho has long championed Massey’s repertoire, with Massey’s politics striking a responsive chord with him. Clarinettist Quincy Saul helped produce the disc.
In the jazz repertory spirit, Ho sets out to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Massey’s major statement, “The Black Liberation Movement Suite” a nine-part work, composed in the 1970s. Although in 2013, honoring Eldridge Cleaver as a hero of Black Liberation alongside Coltrane, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey strikes a jarring sociological chord, it doesn’t alter the excellence of the music.
As complex as contemporary notated compositions, Massey did a lot more than compose an Afro-centric suite for jazz-oriented big band. Royal Hartigan’s African percussion color the proceedings throughout, and first-rate contributions are made by Zankel’s irregularly bisected reed trills, trombonist Frank Kuumba Lacy’s kinetic lines which combine gutbucket grit with a JJ Johnson-like staccato attack, and Jackie Coleman’s muted trumpet work; but the strings players aren’t there for mere prettiness. For instance on “(Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change”, pinched, double-stopping from violist Melanie Dyer helps describe the agitated narrative alongside reed riffs. The tune’s finale melds swinging horn riffs with musicians chanting the lyrics in a style that’s half-agitprop and half-ring-shout. Coleman’s plunger tones are put to good use tracks such as “The Damned Don’t Cry”, contrasted with swaying sheets of sound from the reed section with counterweight in the form of Wes Brown’s bass pumps. Like all of Ho’s works, this CD blends selected traditionalism with musical modernism and advanced political consciousness. When the band showcases the final “Back to Africa”, for instance, clichéd Dark Continent-like percussion displays aren’t upfront. Instead pianist Art Hirahara’s muscular key patterning helps Lacy’s undulating grace notes construct a broken-octave exposition completed by Count Basie band-like riffs and Latin music suggestions. As these narratives echo extended works such as Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, and through that masterpiece Duke Ellington’s suites, Massey’s – and by extension Ho’s – affinity for the jazz tradition is cemented.
As much as Ho dislikes the word “jazz”, which he insists is a racial slur, ghettoizing the art form, these CDs show how he’s made important contributions to the genre.
Tracks: Snake-Eaters: Darker than Blue; Yellow Power, Yellow Soul Suite: Fishing Song of the East China Sea; Tanko Bushi; Baeng Nori; Hero Among Heroes; Jeet Kune Do: The Way of the Intercepting Fist (for Bruce Lee); Reflections (upon “Reflections”!); Misty-ification (aka Mystification); Beyond Columbus and Capitalism: My God, My Gold: The European Invasion; Civilization or Syphillisation?; The New World Odor (The Huge Farts of Red-meat Eating Imperialists Foul the Earth!); Ghost Dance on the Grave of Capitalism; Reflections (Redux-Prefigurative); Dear Reader*
Personnel: Snake-Eaters: Hafez Modirzadeh: soprano saxophone; Bobby Zankel: alto saxophone; Salim Washington: tenor saxophone; Fred Ho: baritone saxophone; Haleh Abghari: vocals*[tracks 9-12: Ho; Chris Jonas: soprano saxophone; Sam Furnace: alto saxophone; David Bindman: tenor saxophone]
Tracks: Cal Massey: The Black Liberation Movement Suite: Prayer; (Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change; Man at Peace in Algiers (for Eldridge Cleaver); The Black Saint (for Malcolm X); The Peaceful Warrior (for Martin Luther King, Jr.); The Damned Don’t Cry (for Huey P. Newton); Reminiscing About Dear John (for John Coltrane); Babylon; Back to Africa (for Marcus Garvey); Quiet Dawn; Goodbye Sweet Pops (for Louis Armstrong); The Cry of My People
Personnel: Cal Massey: Jackie Coleman, Nabate Isles, Jameson Chandler: trumpets; Frank Kuumba Lacy, Aaron Johnson: trombones; Bobby Zankel: alto saxophone; Salim Washington: tenor saxophone, other woodwinds; Ben Barson: baritone saxophone; Art Hirahara: piano; Melanie Dyer: viola; Dorothy Lawson: cello; Wes Brown: bass; royal hartigan: drums, African percussion; Whitney George: conductor
--For The New York City Jazz Record February 2013
February 7, 2013
Rhapsody’s 2012 Jazz Critics' Poll
From Ken Waxman
• Your name and primary affiliation(s) (no more than two, please)
Jazz Word (www.jazzword.com); The New York City Jazz Record
• Your choices for 2012's ten best new releases listed in descending order one-through-ten.
1. François Houle Genera Songlines SGL 1595-2
2. Fred Ho/Quincy Saul The Music of Cal Massey: A Tribute Mutable/Big Red Media 004
3. William Parker Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976–1987 NoBusiness Records NBCD 42-47
4. Grutronic & Evan Parker Together in Zero Space psi 11.09
5. Frank Wright Blues for Albert Ayler ESP-Disk ESP-4068
6. Michel Doneda/Nils Ostendorf Cristallisation absinth Records 023
7. Josh Berman & His Gang There Now Delmark DE 2016
8. The Fish Moon Fish Clean Feed CF 254 CD
9. MMM Quartet Live at the Metz Arsenal Leo Records CD LR 631
10. Michael Bates Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich Sunnyside SSC 1291
• Your top-three reissues, again listed in descending order
1. Graham Collier Relook: A Memorial 75th Birthday Celebration Jazz Continuum No #
2. Steve Lacy The Sun (1967-73) Emanem 5022
3. Mazette Watts & Company ESP-Disk 1044
• Your choice for the year's best vocal album
• Your choice for the year's best debut CD
1. Yoni Kretzmer Overlook OutNow Records ONR 002
• Your choice for the year’s best Latin jazz CD
1. El Ombligio Canción Psicotrópica Y Jaleo Festina Lente Discos FLD 015
January 11, 2013
Fred Ho/Quincy Saul
The Music of Cal Massey: A Tribute
Mutable/Big Red Media 004
With his profound disdain for the word “Jazz” – insisting that it’s a racial slur which ghettoizes the art form – bandleader/baritone saxophonist Fred Ho would probably be nonplussed to hear The Music of Cal Massey described as a great Jazz record. But (Hey God-damn-it) – to quote from one of the tune titles – it is. As a Marxist revolutionary Ho may want to designate this tribute in another fashion; it won’t diminish the quality of this performance.
Massey (1928-1972) was a Philadelphia-based trumpeter, who recorded sparingly and is best-known for his association with saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, both of whom recorded his compositions. Massey was also a committed Black Nationalist and Ho has long insisted that the trumpeter’s affiliation with the Black Panthers is and was responsible for the neglect of this important Jazz composer’s works. Having been impressed with the complexity and political implications of Massey music when he performed it with Shepp in his teens, Ho has long championed the repertoire. This project is the result. The baritone saxophonist who has fought colon cancer for years doesn’t perform on the disc. However Quincy Saul, a clarinettist and political organizer who is one of Ho’s students, helped oversee and produce the disc.
Using a 12-piece ensemble conducted by Whitney George, the CD conveyed the strength, intensity and color of Massey’s compositions. Impressive solos are turned in by most of the players on the CD’s three ancillary tunes – arranged by Ho – but the session centrepiece is Massey’s nine-part “Black Liberation Suite”. Composed in 1970s and with arrangements updated in 1986 by Romulus Franceschini, Massey’s closest collaborator, the suite includes sequences honoring such heroes of Black Liberation as Coltrane, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey.
While in 2012 the advisability of honoring Cleaver may be questionable, what can’t be questioned is the breath and integrity of the sounds themselves. Make no mistake these compositions aren’t a series of musical thoughts haphazardly strung together, but a legitimate suite with an introduction, an exposition, theme variations and a finale. True to Massey’s Afro-centric vision, the strings – Melanie Dyer’s viola and Dorothy Lawson’s cello – are used for more than Europeanized prettiness. As early as “(Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change”, the second track, Dyer’s prickly, pinched, double-stopped angling is as responsible for describing the agitated narrative as Bobby Zankel’s irregularly bisected reed trills. Here, and throughout, Royal Hartigan’s African percussion color the proceedings. When the finale involves not only big-band styled riffs from the horns, but the musicians vocalizing the title in a style that’s half-agitprop and half-ring-shout, originality is assured.
A track such as “The Damned Don’t Cry” organized as a showcase for Jackie Coleman’s muted trumpet work, contrasts his plunger tones with rubato brays from the other brass players and swaying sheets of sound from the reed players, The bluesy andante line echoes Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, and through it expresses an affinity to some of Duke Ellington’s early tone poems. Wes Brown’s thumping double bass serves as counterweight to the trumpeter’s spits and wails which complete the section.
With the sequences seamlessly blending into one another, other stand-out soloists include Frank Kuumba Lacy, whose kinetic lines possess both the grit of gutbucket stylists and the melodic stirring of moderato timbres, plus tenor saxophonist Bhinda Keidel’s mid-range swallows and split tones. All along pianist Art Hirahara comps, clanks and clips, with his accompaniment as chromatic as it is challenging. Keidel, Lacy, Coleman and vamping baritone saxophonist Ben Barson also express themselves in the climatic finale, “Back to Africa”. True to Massey’s – and likely Ho’s universalist revolutionary creed – however, the track doesn’t accentuate any clichéd Dark Continent percussion. Instead with Hirahara bearing down muscularly and percussively on the keys, the broken-octave movement is spurred by Count Basie-like riffs with a faint Latin tinge. Meanwhile saxophonists soar to the top of their range and Lacy’s plunger trombone runs lead the undulating sounds to a contrapuntal crescendo.
Overall the CD is an essential disc of profound sounds. It’s an appropriate tribute to Massey, Franceschini, Ho, Saul, George and – sorry Fred –American Jazz.
Tracks: 1. Paryer 2. (Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change 3. Man at Peace in Algiers (for Eldridge Cleaver) 4. The Black Saint (for Malcolm X) 5. The Peaceful Warrior (for Martin Luther King Jr.) 6. The Damned Don’t Cry (for Huey P. Newton) 7. Reminiscing About Dear John (for John Coltrane) 8. Babylon 9. Back to Africa (for Marcus Garvey) 10. Quiet Down 11. Goodbye Sweet Pops (for Louis Armstrong) 12. The Cry of My People
Personnel: Jackie Coleman, Nabatae Isles and Jameson Chandler (trumpets); Frank Kuumba Lacy and Aaron John (trombones); Bobby Zankel (alto saxophone); Salim Washington and Bhinda Keidel (tenor saxophones and woodwinds); Ben Barson (baritone saxophone); Art Hirahara (piano); Melanie Dyer (viola); Dorothy Lawson (cello); Wes Brown (bass); Royal Hartigan (drums and African percussion) and Whitney George (conductor)
March 21, 2012
Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band
The Sweet Science Suite
Mutable/Big Red Media 003
Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich
Sunnyside SSC 1291
Ariel Shibolet/Nori Jacoby
Scenes from an Ideal Marriage
Kadima Collective KCR 28)
Komeda - The Innocent Sorcerer
JazzWerkstatt JW 104
Something In the Air: Improvisers’ Unexpected Inspirations
By Ken Waxman
Over the past few years as post-modernism has made anything fair game for musical interpretation, sophisticated improviser/composers have taken inspiration from the most unlikely sources, far beyond the motifs, historicism and pastels of earlier times. Canadian bassist in New York Michael Bates for instance, has organized a salute to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), using his own music and variants on the modern Russian composer’s oeuvre. Iconoclastic American composer/saxophonist Fred Ho has produced a five-part suite honoring boxer Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) as a militant, outspoken fighter for social justice. The luminous canvases of American visual artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) stimulate Israeli saxophonist Ariel Shibolet’s creativity, while Polish saxophonist Adam Pierończyk recasts in his own fashion the distinctive film scores of composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969).
Bates’ masterful arrangements on Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich
Sunnyside SSC 1291 are so perceptive that during the course of nine tracks he almost reveals symphonic colors using only a top-flight quintet consisting of his double bass; the perfectly timed drums of Tom Rainey; Russ Lossing’s shuddering smears from electric and regular pianos; trumpeter Russ Johnson’s brassy blasts; and the fluid lyricism of Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet. This is apparent from the first track, Dance of Death, from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor. Very quickly the bouncy melody is transformed with plunger trumpet work and well-modulated reed trills to a motif that’s as much 1970s’ Miles Davis as it is a mazurka. Later Silent Witness uses fusion references to atmospherically suggest the composer’s Stalin-era paranoia, with Speed’s singular reed slurs becoming progressively lower-pitched and tonal as Rainey`s drums smack and rebound while Lossing’s ratcheting licks make it seem as if he’s playing electric guitar not piano. Held together by Bates’ reliable thumping, the cacophonous final section gives way to repeated theme variations and conclusive keyboard echoes. Elsewhere, with music derived from the Russian composer’s work or not, the tunes use varied strategies. Intermezzos can be atmospheric and formal, with the reedist approximating oboe-like burrs and timed runs arising from Lossing’s acoustic instrument; as loose and swinging as a Benny Goodman-led combo; or exploding with tougher near-Jazz Messengers-like harmonies. Arcangela is another highpoint, allowing both Russes sufficient solo space. The pianist showcases a series of repeated glissandi centred by Bates’ stentorian pulse; while the trumpeter’s capillary slurs evolve into a quicksilver flow cushioned by harmonized keyboard and reed textures. All in all the wrap-around themes simultaneously celebrate Shostakovich’s intent while exposing improvisations that are true to jazz’s ethos.
Transforming the sounds of another musician whose short-lived but prolific career defined Polish jazz, popular and even notated sounds for years after his untimely death is the task of Krakow-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Pierończyk on Komeda-The Innocent Sorcerer JazzWerkstatt JW 104 Luckily he has the help of Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras, countryman Łukasz Żyta on percussion, including typewriter [!] plus two American veterans, bassist Anthony Cox and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas. Actually it’s Veras who often sets the pace, since his delicate nylon-string strumming brings a Bossa Nova-like lilt to, and encourages equivalent horn harmonies on, later-period Komeda tunes like After the Catastrophe. Two of Komeda’s best-known themes are treated most substantially by the quintet. Sleep Safe and Warm used in “Rosemary’s Baby” and Crazy Girl from “Knife in the Water”. Typewriter sounds produced by Żyta underlie contrasting rubato split tones from Thomas’ tenor and Pierończyk’s soprano sax obbligato during variants on the first tune. Meanwhile sul ponticello bass work make the theme more menacing, with the piece reaching a crescendo of sharp guitar licks and overlapping horn parts, drastically truncated as the sound of a typewriter’s carriage return completes the track. Bustling Cool Jazz-like harmonies give way to contrapuntal horn vamping, rapid twangs from the guitarist and broken-meter drumming on Crazy Girl. With the percussionist waving Latin percussion and Cox sliding up and down his strings, Thomas’ hard-toned blowing and Pierończyk’s parallel tongue fluttering define the song’s repeated motif, as the two reedits circle back to recap and draw out the initial head.
Moving on from celebrating masterful musicians’ compositional influences to appreciating the political subtext of someone dubbed athlete of the century is The Sweet Science Suite Mutable/Big Red Media 003, a five-part suite Ho composed for his 19-piece Green Monster Big Band. An activist as well as a musician, Ho’s arrangements are as outstanding and unique as Ali’s boxing style. Unafraid of outside references, on Shake up the World, the piece’s staccato exposition quotes liberally from Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love for a proper period feel, although that theme is intertwined with vamping section work echoing the Count Basie band, a funky backbeat, fiery brass triplets and a slinky boppish tenor sax solo. Other variants, such as Rope-A-Dope frame Salim Washington’s muscular big-toned tenor saxophone in a lusty big band arrangement that’s part ballad and part free form. Still other tunes expose and bury references to interludes ranging from Chinese court music to American TV show themes, to speeding train-like riffs plus Charles Mingus’ particular blend of gospel and blues. Other examples of bravura (over) blowing include Ho double-tonguing a staccatissimo baritone sax interlude from pedal point to altissimo range that is outlined clearly among brass fanfares and gruff snorts from two bass trombones plus broken beats from percussionist Royal Hartigan. The climatic key to the suite is the constantly expanding No Vietnamese Ever Called me a Nigger, where Hartigan’s stylized gongs and hammered cross tones suggest the sounds of the Viet Nam War Ali avoided, costing him his championship status. Throughout the more-than-16½-minute narrative, sonic interpolations, encompassing split-second theme inferences, bluesy harmonies from the six-piece sax section, twanging guitar riffs, discordant trumpet blasts, pedal-point bass trombone snorts and a final, unexpected, smoothing coda describe the discordance of the era and its final resolution. This resolution, personified by abrasive guitar solos and split-tone reed explosions, leads to Worthy of Praises Most High, a concluding theme that acknowledges Ali’s undiminished skill. Triumphantly fortissimo and atonal, the finale highlights guitarist Amanda Monaco’s rock-like chording arching over sequences of juddering pitch dislocation from brass triplets until decisive orchestral calmness prevails.
In contrast to the other CDs’ inspirations, Shibolet’s Scenes from an Ideal Marriage Kadima Collective KCR 28 expresses in music his interpretation of Twombly’s acrylic and pencil painting of the same name. Part of a trilogy of CDs by the tenor saxophonist dedicated to the recently deceased visual artist, “Scenes” also features violist Nori Jacoby. Despite obvious differences, like partners in an ideal marriage, the timbres from Shibolet’s soprano saxophone and Jocoby’s viola are sometimes indistinguishable, especially when involved in intertwined dialogue. At times polyphonic, polytonal or polyharmonic the instruments’ textures mix without blending or losing individual identities. Masterful in his use of multiphonics, the reedist lip burbles, pushes unaccented air through his horn’s body tube, hums through his mouthpiece while sounding a tone, and squawks wet glissandi. Meantime the fiddler’s strategy involves sul ponticello scrapes, flying spiccato scrubs and jagged, angled vibrations. By the time the climatic second theme variant is heard, Shibolet’s pinched ney-like whistles and Jacoby’s sul tasto strokes surmount abrasive atonalism. The defining intermezzo is unexpectedly lyrical in contrast to the exposition, but doesn’t neglect pressure for prettiness. When each player’s timbres become as thin as pencil strokes, the subsequent split tones (from the saxist) and angled strokes (from the violist) stretch the sound without breaking it, and eventually combine for wide-bore smears which advance then conclude the recitation.
Sonic inspiration can come from anywhere. It`s up to the canny improviser to do the best he or she can with it, as these musicians demonstrate.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 17 #6
March 11, 2012
The New York City Jazz Record Interview:
With Fred Ho
By Ken Waxman
Composer, bandleader, baritone saxophonist, political activist and cancer survivor, Fred Ho has forged a singular path since the mid-1980s. Known for his multi-media creations, evoking his Asian heritage alongside African-American influences, Ho has received numerous awards, while his fight with colon cancer is documented in a new book.
The New York City Jazz Record: Both of your big bands are being featured this month. What distinguishes one from the other?
Fred Ho: My core band is the Afro Asian Music Ensemble [AAME], founded in 1982. The AAME is a sextet often used as the instrumental ensemble for many of my operas, for example, Warrior Sisters, Night Vision, Voice of The Dragon Episodes 1, 2 and 3, etc. The Green Monster Big Band was founded at the end of 2008 just after my diagnosis of a third cancer tumor and I was only given 1 in 30,000 chances of living. I wanted one last venture with my favorite musicians so a big band was logical. Until The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring of Muhammad Ali which premieres this month and includes dancers-choreographed by Christal Brown, the AAME was the group that played the scores to my operas. The AAME celebrates its 30th season for 2011-2012. Before composing new works for the Green Monster Big Band I listened to all the important big band recordings of the 20th century in order NOT to regurgitate any of these influences, but to create a big band repertoire that would represent the apex of the African-American large form.
TNYCJR: Are there musicians in the bands who have played with you over that 30 year period?
Fred Ho: No one has played with me for the entire 30 years. The tenures of my AAME are drummer Royal Hartigan since 1987; saxophonist Masaru Koga: since 1998; saxophonist Salim Washington and I didn’t professionally perform together until 2006 although he and I were musically collaborating since our days as teenagers at Harvard University; bassist Wesley Brown since 1995; pianist Art Hirahara since 2000. [Saxophonist] Sam Furnace played with me for 20 years before his death in January 2004.
TNYCJR: Most of your works over the years have been extended compositions. Were they extension of concepts by Duke Ellington and/or Charles Mingus you appreciated when you were younger?
Fred Ho: While I love the music of Ellington and Mingus, I have chosen not to regurgitate anyone or any influence. My extended works are the result of my desire to compose film scores of fantastical imaginative new worlds and new beings. The closest comparison is to Sun Ra’s cosmo-dramas, though my works are more narrative and utilize more stage production craft. I call my operas ‘living comic books’ or ‘manga operas’. The concept of opera is very radical, ‘root’ and ‘experimenal’ according to dialectical definitions: literally in Latin, to be ‘The Work’ and not just with singing and staging. For example, my martial arts operas feature martial arts instead of singing.
TNYCJR: Saxophonist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Cal Massey influenced you as a younger musician. Can you describe what each contributed to your work?
Fred Ho: I was a teenage when I studied and performed with Archie Shepp, in the early 1970s, when he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I grew up. Archie then had a great sensibility about theater, and uniquely for a ‘jazz’ artist, had some of his early plays produced in New York. Archie had met and formed a close bond with the older Cal Massey, who Archie described as ‘the Coltrane collaborator.’ Cal’s music was at that time an important part of Archie's repertoire, including the musical, Lady Day, for which Archie, Cal and Stanley Cowell were musical composer/collaborators. I was very fortunate to not only be exposed to this music, but to perform in it. Cal’s music especially resonated with me, for its searing revolutionary politics, harmonic complexity and clarion soulful melodies.
TNYCJR: Were there other pivotal musical influences on you?
Fred Ho: All the baritone sax players, from Harry Carney, to Leo Parker, to Serge Chaloff, to Pepper Adams, to you name it, influenced me greatly, so much so that I clearly did not want to regurgitate any of them. I’m Chinese American. I wanted to play Chinese/Asian American baritone saxophone, not ‘jazz’ baritone saxophone. All the big bands influenced me. So did all the great composers. I revere the music and the artists so much so that I never want to replicate or allow them to have any direct influence upon me. Sun Ra influenced me to create cosmo-drama-like epic musical journeys on a shoe-string budget.
TNYCJR: Most of your projects celebrate such non-mainstream figures as Malcolm X, Mao Zedong and the Black Panthers. What difficulties have arisen trying to perform and/on record music involved with subjects like these?
Fred Ho: I was told by a celebrated record label and its executive producer that if I had Malcolm X on my album cover, with the U.S. flag turned upside down that the recording wouldn't be distributed in the U.S. I was told by the first executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center that while I am a talented composer and arranger, that I was completely wrong when it came to politics and ‘jazz’. I was told by the director of a division of a major music licensing agency that I would never ever have a career again for opposing racism in the music business. Repression against me wasn’t blatant or conspiratorial, it was ‘ignore him, he'll be marginalized and that’ll be his end’. The carrot and the stick. The carrot as many hope that if they keep their politics hidden, obscure or unnoticed, that they’ll have a chance to become ‘stars’. The stick as a former executive at a one jazz label I recorded for said to me: ‘This won't sell’.
TNYCJR: Your newest work honors Muhammad Ali. Isn’t he a more mainstream and less revolutionary figure than some of those who you have composed works about in the past?
Fred Ho: Damn man, Muhammad Ali was a revolutionary. After he wins the Olympic gold medal in boxing, but is refused service in his hometown diner, he throws his medal into the river. After he becomes the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, , he announces that he has joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Ali opposes the U.S. war in Vietnam, citing ‘No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger!’ He is stripped of his title, denied a career in the U.S., imprisoned for six months, vilified as an un-American draft evader, loses every penny he’s made, barely able to make a living, and can’t box professionally in the U.S. for over three years, at the height of his abilities. Against a far superior opponent, given no odds to win, the only boxer to knock out George Foreman, Ali, regains his title, becomes a hero beloved among the Third World and among all anti-racists and anti-imperialists, and has achieved world-wide recognition. If that isn’t revolutionary, then what is? My personal interest to homage Ali is motivated by how much his courage inspired me to fight on during the darkest days of the cancer war.
TNYCJR: Many of your CD length suites include what many would consider less-than-serious song as well as other material, including the Spiderman Theme and ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. How do these pop-artifacts fit in with your other work and why record them?
Fred Ho: Again, a spurious dichotomy when what I do is create a ‘popular avant garde’. I have recontextualized ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ to be about the fall from the Garden of Eden. Did you examine the score? It is far more sophisticated than you might presume; for example, the voicings. The Spiderman theme is a blues. Is any blues less or more a pop-cultural artifact? Mission: Impossible theme is in 5/4 meter and I regard it far ‘better’ than Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, which is supposed to be less a ‘pop’ piece because it wasn't a TV theme. I picked Spiderman because he was a breakthrough superhero character who had neurotic problems, human faults and weaknesses, etc.; ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ because it took up an entire side of a pop record album, the first time this was ever done. It’s often used in zombie and horror films for its ‘pagan-istic’ quality, but I chose to create a contrary view; instead of the prevailing and predominant view of human history as an ‘ascent’ from the primitive to the modern and civilized, but rather, as a descent from nature.
TNYCJR: In the past you have said that you dislike the word ‘jazz’ to describe your and others’ music because it is used pejoratively by whites to denigrate the music of Black Americans. Do you still feel that way? What about that the ‘jazz’ word seems to have been taken over by black conservatives such as Wynton Marsalis?
Fred Ho: Does the fact that gangsta rappers use the word ‘nigga’ lessen its deprecation? ‘Jazz’ is a racial slur and the continued usage ghetttoizes the art form, meaning, if it is truly America’s classical music’, then why call it ‘jazz’? Russian classical music isn’t called Ruzz. French classical music isn’t called Frazz. Chinese classical music isn’t called Chazz. I discuss this topic in an essay ‘What Makes 'Jazz' The Revolutionary Music of the 20th Century, and Will It Be For The 21st?’ in my book, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice. Wynton Marsalis is a Negro comprador. It makes sense he perpetuates the Auto-Oppression Syndrome so prevalent among the colonized and oppressed.
TNYCJR: Many of your CDs say that the ‘old’ Fred Ho died on August 4, 2006 from advanced colo-rectal cancer and notes that the ‘new’ Fred Ho was born on August 5, 2006. How is the “new” Fred Ho different from the “old” Fred Ho?
Fred Ho: I am 54 years old and simultaneously six years old. This is not gamesmanship or trying to be eccentric, it is very palpable. I am far more creative than ever before, and have reached a higher level mastery of baritone saxophone playing eight octaves. Here is the new Fred Ho: a. Eliminated ego; b. A part-time farmer and aspiring Luddite; c. Committed only to his mission on the planet to do the music/art and politics that no one else can or will do. d. Committed more than ever to living the impossible. e. Living life while prepared for death
TNYCJR: How will your health affect your future plans?
Fred Ho: One is never ever free of cancer. On one hand, the physical losses are tremendous; on the other, the philosophical and creative gains are tremendous. I have let go all baggage from the past and am only future-forward-minded. I have something few people ever have: the ability to see beyond corners, edges, boundaries and lineaments.
Do I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder? My legacy far exceeds that of ‘jazz’ and it is precisely this reality that is unfathomable and inconceivable to almost everyone in the ‘jazz’ industry On top of this, I’m financially more successful than the heralded ‘stars’. The enigma of Fred Ho is akin to giving Fred Ho one in 30,000 chances to NO chances of living from cancer.
--For New York City Jazz Record November 2011
November 10, 2011
Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band
Year of the Tiger
Italian Instabile Orchestra
Rai Trade RTP J0021
Pierre Labbé +12
Tremblement de fer
Ambiance Magnétique AM202
Intakt CD 186
Something in the Air: Big Band Redux
By Ken Waxman
More than 60 years after the big band era, improvising musicians still organize large ensembles to take advantage of its wider scope and range of colors. Such is the versatility of the arrangements possible with large bands as these sessions demonstrate, that each sounds completely unique while maintaining the same excellence.
Over nearly 71 minutes on Totally Gone Rai Trade RTP J0021 the all-star aggregation of 17 of the country’s most accomplished players who make up the Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO) demonstrate the combination of technical skills and rambunctious good spirits that has kept the band going since 1990. Unsurprisingly the climatic track, Ciao Baby, I’m Totally Gone/It Had to be You, is a case-in-point instance of the band’s expansive talents. Switching between timbral dissonance from squeaky spiccato strings and snoring brass slurs on one hand with sibilant, staccato section work that could have migrated from Fletcher Henderson’s band, the IIO’s texture is simultaneously mainstream and avant-garde. This is made clearest when a sequence of pure air forced from Sebi Tramontana’s trombone turns to plunger polyrhythm as he’s backed by harmonized reeds and strings, and ends with him vocalizing the second half of title backed by Fabrizio Puglisi’s key-clipping piano and Gianluigi Trovesi’s undulating clarinet obbligato. This sense of fun is also expressed on “No Visa”, a jazzy hoedown which leaves room for sul ponticello fiddling from violinist Emanuele Parrini, funky tenor saxophone vamping from Daniele Cavallanti, a brassy mid-range fanfare and the entire band vocally riffing in unison. This doesn’t mean that compositional seriousness isn’t displayed alongside the theatricism. The multi-tempo Gargantella, for instance is as much a nocturne as a capriccio. Here closely-voiced and massed horns and strings move adagio beneath strained brass notes and a snorting, altissimo showcase for baritone saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato until the tone poem is completed by polished, string movements given shape by the clattering cymbals and wood block pops of percussionists Vincenzo Mazzone and Tiziano Tononi.
With rock-influenced electric piano and guitar prominent, Pierre Labbé’s 12-piece big band takes a different approach on Tremblement de fer Ambiances Magnétiques AM 202 CD performing a seven-part suite the saxophonist composed for a Montreal festival. A POMO sound essay, the composition is animated by contrapuntal clashes between sections which include four bowed strings, two brass, two reeds, plus guitar, piano, bass and percussion. Although linked, each track can be appreciated on its own. Despite its Arabic title, Le 2e Souk is actually a showcase for Jean Derome’s improvisations on successively, alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Throughout his staccato peeps, sibilant slurs and flutter tonguing are matched by tremolo slides, sawing and scratches from the violinists, violist and cellist. Lavra, on the other hand masses Balkan-sounding string discord with irregular pulses from guitarist Bernard Falaise and drummer Pierre Tanguay as soprano saxophonist André Leroux carries the melody. Resolution comes when trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier abandons plunger tones to slurp his way up the scale, accompanied by the strings and pianist Guillaume Dostaler’s steady comping. Tanguay, whose hand taps are suitably exotic when playing darbuka, contributes muscular ruffs throughout. His steadying backbeat is particularly necessary on the final La Fille et la grenouille. Sounding like what would happen if a street-corner Sally Ann band wandered into a country music session, the tune mixes up the bugling from the brass players, rooster crows and spits from the reeds, a bow-legged rhythm with cow-bell pings from Tanguay, and Falaise contrasting his best pseudo-steel-guitar C&W twangs with the somewhat schmaltzy tutti horn lines.
Taking a different tack is percussionist Pierre Favre’s Le Voyage Intakt CD 186 which mutates standard big-band harmonies with unique sound blocks in the drummer’s compositions. Utilizing a saxophone choir of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone to create concentrated organ-like chord pulsations, Favre’s intermezzos parcel the solos out among guitarist Phillipp Schaufelberger, trombonist Samuel Blaser and clarinetist Claudio Putin. With the rhythmic thrust doubled by string bass and bass guitar, the results evoke baroque ballads as certainly as big band swing. An example of the latter is “Wrong Name” where Putin’s florid twitters trill chromatically, while around him harmonized reeds throb in unison, prodded from adagio to andante tempo by cross-patterning cracks and pops from the drummer. “Les Vilains” on the other hand could be modernized Renaissance court music, with the reeds playing formalized close harmonies as if they were a string quartet, with cascading and irregular timbres doled out from Schaufelberger’s harsh, slurred fingering. Favre’s sound architecture is most obvious on “Akimbo” where reed shading becomes sonically three-dimensional as the drummer’s clips emphasize the symmetry between the guitarist’s string snaps plus Blaser’s plunger grace notes.
Practically standing the big band tradition and its head, American gigantism is emphasized on Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band’s Year of the Tiger Innova 789 since the Chinese-American composer bursts with so many sociological and musical tropes that a 21 musicians are needed to express them. A Marxist populist Ho packs within 70 minutes, a five-part suite honoring African-American big bands; a trio of Michael Jackson songs; the Johnny Quest TV show theme song; a couple of Jimi Hendrix hits; plus excerpts from his chamber opera featuring the band plus an adult and a children’s choirs. These extracts are notable for how he blends formalist bel canto singing with instrumental looseness from an improvising ensemble, whereas Ho’s arrangement of the Hendrix melodies play up their jazz-rock linkage as tremolo trombone slurs and roistering sax vamps parallel the double-tracked vocals. More seriously, adding an anti-capitalist recitation from poet Magdalena Gomez to Jackson’s Bad and Thriller, already evocatively sung by Leena Conquest, defines the werewolf and zombie sound effects within the context of mindless consumerism, mocked by guffawing brass and a slurping tenor sax solo. The CD’s heart is contained in the six selections of Take the Zen Train, which manages to reference both Pete Seeger and Duke Ellington. Using instrumental pulsations and layering, with bellowing brass reverb and tension-and-release variants plus the vibrancy of frequent tempo changes, Ho composes tonal portraits for his soloists. Outstanding are cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s whispering and peeping ballad feature; the stop-time slurs and gutbucket expansions from bass trombonist David Harris; plus an interlude which matches alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs’ reed masticating alongside the composer’s snorting baritone sax runs. Seeger’s left-wing orientation is apparent in some of the tune titles including Quarantine for the Aggressor. Whether used for program music or for timbral amplification, big bands remain a preferred form of expression for players and composers.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 16 #9
June 5, 2011
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)*
June 6, 2010
Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader
Edited by Diane C. Fujino
University of Minnesota Press
Composer, bandleader and baritone saxophonist; theorist about American Black, Asian and what he terms Womyn’s liberation; plus a committed revolutionary socialist, Fred Ho writes essays that are as uncompromising and defiant as his composing.
This wide-ranging collection elucidates his evolving philosophy from 1984 to 2006 while tracing his development as he terms it “From Banana to Third World Marxist”. Although his essays on the twists and turns of identity politics seen through the prism of dialectical materialism and Mao Zedong-styled Communism may alienate readers interested in music, politics are his very fabric. As he states: “When people ask me how long I’ve been playing the saxophone, I tell them as along as I’ve been in the struggle. When activists ask me how long I’ve been in the movement, I tell them as long as I’ve been playing the saxophone.”
Born to an assimilated family in Amherst, Mass. in 1957, Ho discovered improvised music when most students’ interests consist of Wiii, skin care and sports. By 25, he was a New York musician. His commitment to avant-garde jazz stemmed from exposure to charismatic tenor saxophonist and Black Nationalist-Socialist Archie Shepp, who taught along with Ho’s father at the university, and trumpeter Cal Massey, a Black Panther sympathizer, whose Afro-centric compositions were recorded by major figures like John Coltrane. Some of Ho’s most perceptive writing is his analysis of the influential, but little-known Massey, plus the roles of Shepp, poet Amiri Baraka and other jazz-sympathetic figures of the 1970s Black Arts movement.
Central to this is the saxophonist’s insistence that jazz is America’s true revolutionary music. “Every feature … is an expression of revolutionary dialectics. Demarcations are dissolved between soloist and ensemble; among melody, time and harmony; between composition and improvisation; between “traditional” and “avant-garde”; between “artist” and “audience”; …between “Western” and “Eastern” etc. Jazz involves the impulses to “go to the people, speak to the people” and “change the people”.
From 1976 to 1989 Ho was a self-described “cadre” of I Wor Kun (IWK), an Asian Black Panthers counterpart, then in the League for Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist), which united IWK, Chicano and Black organizations forming a Communist group with what he calls a majority “oppressed nationality membership”. After he researched folk traditions of Asian groups in the United States, Ho’s jazz bands consciously used Asian instruments alongside Western ones and played compositions based on earlier Asian-American musics. Simultaneously he created multi-media programs including a martial arts ballet and operas with titles such as “Bound Feet” and “A Chinaman’s Chance”. Consequently his insider’s knowledge and jaundiced view of Asian American improvised music is another of his substantive themes.
According to Ho, not only must music “…draw from or reflect aspects of traditional Asian music influences” but also “help catalyze …consciousness about our oppression and need to struggle for liberation”. Subsequently, although most committed Asian-American improvisers have avoided what Ho labels “chop-suey ‘fusion’ music… [with] cute koto frills, ceremonious Chinese gongs and parallel fifths thrown in for spice like MSG”, the majority of players reject politics. Although Ho was involved with these musicians and initially recorded for the Asian Improv (AI) label, their a-political stance caused a rupture, and he charges he has since been banished from AI’s history.
Non-mainstream musicians will be most interested in parts of Wicked which illustrate how a defiantly anti-establishment, transgressive and ideological Marxist artist such as Ho manages to get his music before the public. How he “sells without selling out”. Ho controls his own means of cultural production through Big Red Media (BRM), a production company of which he is sole owner, president and chief executive artist. With his collaborators working part time on a commission basis this “guerilla enterprise” is a “combination of a small business corporation and old-time Leftist collective”. Raising money through such strategies as grants, fundraisers, sales and donations, BRM uses earned income to pay for new projects such as concerts and CDs and covers Ho’s living expenses. With associates who are “extremely committed and professional” and without a manager, BRM manages to be more profitable than if he was affiliated with a major record company. This strategy may be disingenuous since Ho appears to have made the free enterprise system he fervently opposes work for him.
Furthermore, Ho’s hostility towards capitalism may have intensified since 2006 when he was diagnosed with cancer despite monitoring his diet and exercising rigorously. Having twice undergone chemotherapy he figures that cancer will only be vanquished when the toxicity associated with burgeoning capitalism is eliminated. One wishes him well, but the ghoulish irony remains that if this revolutionary socialist is silenced, it will result from the carcinogens created by the society he has fought against for so long.
-- Ken Waxman
-- For MusicWorks Issue #106
March 8, 2010