The first noticeable thing about the people who'd come to the Herbst to see "Asian-American jazz" (an iffy hybrid in concept, but a good one in practice) was their apparent inability or unwillingness to chuckle at anything approximating flatulence.
Two saxophone players, Francis Wong and Hafez Modirzadeh, wandered out at the outset blowing overlapping discordant tones -- a concept thoroughly explored in 20th-century art music, and no longer jarring. More surprising were the sounds that came after the musicians removed the reeds from their instruments. They made all manner of silly noises, speaking into the horns, razzing, spitting, puffing, clicking tongues -- a not-so-dulcet collection of tones that appeared at times to ape that most base human effusion, the fart. The silliness was the point, and the sound effects entertaining. The Herbst audience, however, didn't seem to react. I glanced about and saw, at best, restive smiles, and at worst, the odd chin being stroked. I wondered whether this lack of immediate response to something so bawdily vaudevillian was due to people thinking that jazz, regarded more as an art form these days than as music for entertainment's sake, is too serious and important for such petty human response. I laughed some; sue me. (The guy seated in front of me, who became visibly agitated over the slightest stir or chirp among the crowd, will probably initiate the class action.)
Not that much of the Asian-American jazz played was of typical crowd-pleasin', foot-tappin' caliber; instead, we were dealing with experiments in tonal color and ensemble force. Wong and Modirzadeh were joined by bassist (and organizer) Mark Izu, tablaist Zakir Hussain, koto player Miya Masaoka, and percussionist Anthony Brown. Where the music wasn't atmospheric (read: free, atonal), it fell back on the old jumpin' equation: bass riff + high hat = good music. Only then could you feel people tapping a collective beat through the floorboards. Almost anything played atop this simple structure is capable of quashing analysis -- and in this case, the double sax lines and rhythmic bursts between the tablas and drum kit got the response.
I was surprised by the inclusion of a silent movie -- the final half-hour of a heady pre-code Chinatown gangster film, The Tong Man. Most of the music was improvised, but the musicians also managed to accompany gunshots with cymbal crashes. One great thing about the film was the way the Asian characters would start speaking (in the subtitles, I mean) in mangled "yellow peril" English when dealing with Caucasian cops -- just like that line from Burroughs: "No got, clom Fliday." The rest of the time, the characters were perfectly eloquent. The film was so good that I forgot that I was there to watch music -- forgot, in fact, that music was being performed.
The musicians seemed more capable of humor than the crowd. At some point during an early jam, some audience member's cellular phone started ringing. If you thought the digital watch alarm intrusions in movie theaters during the '80s were annoying, just wait until some dumb yuppie forgets to power down his or her electromagnetic field at a live show. The musicians glanced up, appalled, and other audience members giggled; I, for once, sided with the Prince and the Pea in front of me. The musicians had their revenge, however: During the post-intermission solos, the percussionists would stop and pretend to pick up phones. "Hello?" said drummer Brown. "Mom?"
Speaking of solos: For some reason I find the improvisatory, chops-flaunting, loin-girding efforts of jazz soloists infinitely less embarrassing than those of rawk gawd guitarists -- perhaps because there's actual talent and range at work, instead of quicksilver negotiation of pentatonic scales and proper mugging. Brown fairly ripped, as did a duet between Izu and Masaoka, but tablaist Hussain was a one-man ensemble. There seemed to be several percussionists residing in his fingers, for all the flawless intricate noise he made between two instruments no larger than bongos. Hussain threw in jokes, too: Controlling the tautness of the drum membrane to produce tones, he included bits from "The William Tell Overture" and closed with the infamous coda from "Shave and a Haircut." This prowess earned raucous crowd response, and simultaneously made me forget that I was sitting among them.
The crowd got most agitated toward the end, when the ensemble played what basically amounted to hard bop plus koto and tablas. Not terribly groundbreaking, but so what? The Herbst quaked with sudden interest, stomping feet, clapping hands. I suppose people need riffs. So do I. At the conclusion of the evening, I still wasn't certain what "Asian-American jazz" was, but I didn't care. Music conquers where concepts languish, especially if the bested are a sedate crowd.