Residing on the eastern side of the Pacific Rim in the San Francisco Bay Area is the Asian American Orchestra, or the Asian American Jazz Orchestra. Noted for their open-minded approach to fusing musics from disparate cultures, the ten-plus members of the Asian American Orchestra have been known to cast a sheng (a traditional Chinese mouth organ), a dizi (a Chinese side-blown bamboo flute), a Persian frame drum, several Persian end-blown flutes, and a gong together with the more common instrumentation of a North American-oriented jazz orchestra. Like the instruments they play, the members of the orchestra come from a variety of musical backgrounds. Ph.D., ethnomusicologist, and sometimes-bandleader Anthony Brown, plays drums for the outfit. He has intently studied the individual styles and influences of great jazz drummers such as Max Roach. Pianist Jon Jang began studying piano when he was 19. He has since been a key player in the Asian-American music scene in and beyond San Francisco. Multi-wind instrumentalist Hafez Modirzadeh, after earning his Ph.D. in Persian music performance, joined the jazz faculty at San Francisco State University.
Though the orchestra's eclectic union of instrumentalists puts it at risk of sounding like another world beat project -- a postmodern pastiche of misplaced musical signifiers plopped onto all-too-familiar pop beats -- the Asian American Orchestra deftly avoids such listless meandering by committing themselves to the creative realization of remarkable works. For example, on their 1998 CD, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, the orchestra utilized a number of jazz and Asian musical sensibilities, as well as a striking firsthand testimonial by trumpeter and former internee George Yoshida, in order to present the history of the 120,313 west coast Japanese-Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and deported to ten U.S. concentration camps during World War II. It's a groundbreaking work that effectively uses many musical techniques and practices to represent one of the United States' most shameful moments. On their 1999 release, Anthony Brown takes the Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composition Far East Suite and adapts it to meet both the instrumentation and identity of the orchestra. Once again, the Asian American Orchestra pulls off a momentous work that at once genuinely integrates musical genres and reinterprets -- in commemoration of Ellington's centennial -- one of Ellington's and Strayhorn's incredible suites. For the jazz lover who is looking for truly original, expressive, and creative sounds, the Asian American Orchestra's various recordings and periodic live gigs should be sought out and experienced.