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High Musical Math

One plus one equals infinite pleasure in Jan Jang/Francis Wong collaboration at La Peña

By Nicky Baxter

It had been at least four years since pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong last played in a duet setting, but you'd never know it from their glove-tight performance at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley this past Saturday (Dec. 28) evening.

The concert was billed as a "revolutionary" event, and indeed, it was a radical departure from La Peña's usual pan-Latino fare. More to the point is the fact that the two musicians are among the most influential figures in creative music, melding U.S.-African, Chinese and, to a lesser degree, European elements into a strikingly original whole. As for politics proper, let's just say that neither one has voted Republican in recent memory.

Things got off to a rousing start with a Jang composition titled "Jazz Insidious--Jazz Improper 209 ('Tis De-Kline Arts Apartheid, San Francisco)," a pointed if somewhat arcane reference to Randall Kline, the city's arts-funding overlord. Title aside, the piece was a powerfully evocative, unmistakably heated polemic, with Jang's ominous storm-cloud rumblings initiating an intense dialogue with Wong, whose tenor alternately whinnied and belched in response.

As the tune unfolded, the two musicians seemed to strike off in polar directions, each instrument spiraling farther "out." Not unlike aerial combatants, saxophone and piano attacked and retreated fiercely. Yet at the core of this cacophony, one could sense a unity of vision. And as the song's conclusion made plain, that vision was not without humor.

If the introductory number illustrated the duo's facility in the New Black Music tradition, "Autumn Moon Over a Calm Lake" and "For Tom" were compelling examples of how that tradition's lexicon has been broadened by Asian folk forms.

Based on a traditional love song, "Autumn Moon" commenced with Jang trilling out a butterfly-fragile Chinese motif with his right hand; at once familiar and exotic, the melody was utterly entrancing. Wong's tenor was deliberate, burrowing deep into the instrument's lower register, sounding somewhat like a distant cousin to Coleman Hawkins.

Almost certainly a Jang arrangement, the song is yet more evidence of the native San Franciscan's unparalleled knack for interpreting Chinese folk idioms within the context of improvisational music.

Wong's "For Tom" also draws on China's rich cultural legacy for its shape and texture. By way of a stirring spoken preamble, Wong revealed that the song was dedicated to his brother, who died of a drug overdose some 15 years ago.

Like his eulogy, Wong's horn work was movingly eloquent, vulnerable, even. Equally impressive was Jang's solo, which effortlessly migrated from dense, melancholic clusters to a Chinese zitherlike drizzle.

Given the first set's preoccupation with anthems (Chinese, African), it was altogether appropriate that the U.S. be included, and so Wong--doing his best impression of Jimi Hendrix "doing" "The Star Spangled Banner"--ripped the top off Sam's tune, capping it off with a bluesy coda ("You Don't Know What Love Is"). Hmmm.

Trust and Communication

Performing as an instrumental duet can be a tricky business. Compatibility is the most obvious concern. And here, we're not referring to a musical relationship alone. According to both Wong and Jang, a strong sense of camaraderie offstage is critical to developing the trust and communication required for such a high-wire act.

Prior to stepping beneath La Peña's stage floodlights, Wong and Jang, both clad in black and sporting wire-rimmed specs, shared their thoughts on making two add up to something special.

"It's really a challenge," offers Jang. "You definitely have to have a good vibe in the sense of rhythm and life."

Elaborating, Wong recalls witnessing that inexplicable something when saxophonist Arthur Blythe and pianist Horace Tapscott performed in the East Bay a while back. "You could just watch them pick up on certain things without saying anything. And, between songs they'd talk about ... life, yknow? They'd know each other for what?--20 or 30 years--and you could tell."

Jang and Wong themselves are strong and disciplined band leaders in their own right, qualities essential in determining the success of a micro-unit.

Jang's credentials are impeccable. As a composer, band leader and educator, he has served as a lightning rod for Asian-American creative music in the Bay Area. As head honcho of the Pan Asian Arkestra, the African-Chinese Sextet and the Jon Jang Quartet, he works regularly with the likes of saxophonist David Murray, flute maestro James Newton, trombonist Wayne Wallace and a slew of other brand names.

Wong is one of the two horns in the African-Chinese Sextet and is a charter member of the Arkestra. Wong also leads his own group, Ming, whose Pilgrimage is scheduled for released sometime this month.

Returning, finally, to politics, Jang and Wong have long maintained that the struggle for democratic rights is something that unites Asian and (U.S.) African people. Jang's sometimes meandering commentaries notwithstanding, it was the music that spoke most directly to those common ties.

Just before Wong's deconstruction of the U.S. national anthem, Jang had the P.A. person cue up a scratchy recording of black renaissance man Paul Robeson's powerful rendition of China's national anthem (though, interestingly, La Peña's packed house could muster up only the faintest of applause). Jang next performed a rousing piano solo interpretation of the negro (sic) national anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

The duo's concluding number, Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," was arguably the evening's high point. A tour de force, it was an appropriate closer given Jang's acknowledged reverence for Ellington.

While Jang's playing revealed a profound love of the gospel according to Duke, this did not hinder him tip-toeing out of the Baptist church and into China for more of that otherwordly simulated Chinese zither, thus turning the hymn into transcontinental worship service. And when service was over, the only thing left to say was "amen."

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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