Duke Foundation’s ‘In The Green Room’ Reflects on Jazz Life

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Linda May Han Oh (left) and Jen Shyu perform at the Asia Society in New York on Jan. 12.

(Photo: Ellen Wallop)

Defining “jazz” may be a fool’s errand, but the people at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation are not fools. Even as they asserted that “the definition of what jazz is and what it can be continues to evolve” — see the February 2022 announcement of funding for their Creative Inflections initiative — they didn’t venture a definition of the music.

Little wonder. Such a framing for at least one of the Creative Inflections initiative’s projects — “In The Green Room,” a multidisciplinary collaboration presented on Jan. 12 at the Asia Society in New York — seemed beside the point. The project — as art, as personal reflection, as social commentary — aimed to understand jazz as an existential matter beyond definition.

“Jazz isn’t something you learn,” Toshiko Akiyoshi told the project’s creators, singer-dancer-instrumentalist Jen Shyu and pianist Sumi Tonooka, who jointly interviewed the nonagenarian pianist and sprinkled her sage words throughout the script. “It’s something you live.”

The show’s narrative structure bore that out. The participating artists — Shyu, age 44; Tonooka, 66; and their performance partners, bassist Linda May Han Oh, 38, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, 57 — related stories connecting their early jazz experiences to the present. As the stories unfolded, they formed a layered, multigenerational compendium of the jazz life.

Tonooka told of a youthful visit to Philadelphia’s Aqua Lounge, where Thelonious Monk rendered a thoroughly expansive “’Round Midnight.” She was so inspired that, all the way home, she kept telling her mother, “I want to be a jazz musician.” On the Asia Society stage, she spelled out what it meant to live that dream, offering a smart, shapely solo turn on “’Round Midnight” that evoked Monk’s spirit in the fullness of its self-expression.

A Tonooka composition, “I Will Be Blue,” added to her narrative. Tonooka, who wrote the piece as a teenager, had run it by pianist Mary Lou Williams, with whom she was studying at the time. Williams suggested that Tonooka alter the relationship of a right- and left-hand figure, which Tonooka did, to great effect. That change remained and, as a vehicle for the group at the Asia Society, the piece sparked a modal firestorm.

The fire did not quickly abate. As will happen when female jazz musicians — or, for that matter, musicians of any gender — start reminiscing, the subject of pianist Geri Allen’s legacy came up. This writer recalls nights at the Village Vanguard when Allen and Carrington, along with Esperanza Spalding on bass, created more than their share of smoke. Tonooka, Oh and Carrington played them a close second, burning up the Asia Society bandstand with Allen’s “Feed The Fire.”

For much of the night, the flame burned less hot, though no less brightly. Carrington’s prerecorded voice spoke of her first gig, when, as a prodigy playing with trumpeter Clark Terry at the Wichita Jazz Festival, her feet barely reached the pedals on Louie Bellson’s double bass drum. Singer Dianne Reeves praised her that night, prompting tears of happiness on the ride back to Boston. Behind the drums at the Asia Society, Carrington, using only her hands, translated those memories into a powerfully restrained, lightly percussive counterpoint to her own words.

Oh, meanwhile, portrayed her younger self as an electric-bass-playing Australian kid mesmerized by Ray Brown’s upright bass on Oscar Peterson’s 1963 album Night Train. As her prerecorded voice spoke of Brown’s “huge, beautiful, big, round tone,” Oh, in real time, coaxed tones of impressive resonance from her own upright. Amid the spectral lighting, those tones — combined with the spoken word, Carrington’s drum patter and Tonooka’s pianistic musings — transformed the Asia Society auditorium into a kind of beatnik dive, reaching back to say something about jazz today.

But if any element of the project had the potential to “push jazz beyond its current limits,” as the Cultural Inflections initiative professed to do, it was the fiercely global stance assumed by Shyu. Nearly two decades after finding what she referred to as her artistic “calling,” she was honoring Akiyoshi’s admonition to look into one’s own heritage, drawing parallels between the blues of farmers working the East Asian lands of her foremothers and the blues of farmers near her Illinois hometown. Summoning stories of suffering and survival, her supple soprano soared and swooped in tandem with her swaying arms.

Ultimately, she distilled her cri de coeur to a repeated phrase: “Stake your claim.” Delivered as a sprechgesang vamp of rising intensity, it was matched in passionate intent by a self-accompanying spin on the Korean gayageum, which, when joined by the band in full, elicited an undeniable — if indefinable — jazz embrace. DB




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