One of the most ambitious jazz projects of the late '90s was Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, which used a variety of jazz styles to tell the story of Japanese-Americans who were confined to internment camps during World War II. Ambitious, of course, doesn't necessarily mean creatively successful -- even the best of musical intentions don't always pay off creatively. But in the case of the Asian American Jazz Orchestra, ambition and risk-taking pay off handsomely, resulting in a CD that is as compelling as it is adventurous. The poignant narration is provided by George Yoshida (a veteran jazz improviser and a Japanese-American who was himself interned during World War II) and performance artist Brenda Wong Aoki, while the players include, among others, pianist Jon Jang, tenor saxman Francis Wong, trumpeter John Worley and bassist Mark Izu. The music is quite eclectic -- elements of Japanese and Chinese music are fused with a variety of jazz styles ranging from swing and Latin jazz to post-bop and avant-garde jazz. Traditional jazz instruments are united with bamboo flutes and various Asian string and percussion instruments. While swing era favorites like "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Tuxedo Junction" are used to recall the period, most of the CD consists of original music. In 1998, the jazz-with-narration concept was nothing new -- Max Roach and others had long since used it to reflect on the history of African-Americans. But seldom has it been used in connection with Asian-American history. Jazz lovers should make a point of obtaining this CD.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson