With Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, saxophonist Fred Ho gave birth to a very strange blend of avant-garde jazz and performance theater. This piece calls for a saxophone section, bass, marimba, vibes, drum set, and an assortment of Western and Eastern percussion, along with a narrator and dancers/kung fu fighters. The stage work was premiered in June 1999. This CD contains a studio session recorded a few months later. Avant-garde jazz licks, funky grooves, and a caricatured narrator surrounded by dancing action figures: Ho's vision blends popular and institutionalized cultures into a maelstrom that some listeners will find somewhat cynical. Once Upon a Time in Chinese America tells how the traitor Gar Man Jang brought down the legendary Shaolin Temple and how he was defeated by five martial artists. The text (included in the booklet) was written by Ho and Ruth Margraff and is narrated by Shyaporn Theerakulstit, with singing vocal inflections playing along every Chinese cliché found in American culture. The music is played by Ho's Afro Asian Music Ensemble, comprised of three-quarters of the Brooklyn Sax Quartet (Ho, Sam Furnace, and David Bindman), Diana Herold (mallet percussion), Ayodele Maakheru (bass), and an uncredited drummer. The music oscillates between Ellingtonian and Zornian big-band approaches. That and its literary side makes this project a second-degree cousin of Charles Papasoff's Catharsis II. Exciting, action-packed, and both disorienting and entertaining (thanks for the latter part to jazz-funk episodes), the whole work is inhabited by a lightness that makes it enjoyable to a wide audience. Jazz purists will have difficulties coping with the theatrical side. Of course, the CD version cannot have the same impact as the stage production -- and the narration does get annoying after a couple of listens.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture