San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Miya Masaoka Trio: Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim)”

by Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian
January 28, 1998

THE NOVELTY of hearing Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” or “‘Round Midnight” performed on a Japanese koto quickly dissolves into wonderment in the early moments of Miya Masaoka’s new CD — and into unconditional acceptance of the 21-string zither as a jazz instrument. Since releasing her 1993 debut CD, Compositions/lmprovisations, and receiving her masters in composition from Mills College in 1994, Masaoka has made her koto increasingly prominent, not only in the Asian American jazz movement but also in performance art (such as her “Bee Project #1”) and in the improvised music scene at large. In some ways Monk’s Japanese Folk Song is her most mainstream effort to date, but like everything she does, it is shaped by a unique musical imagination and a deeply personal sound,

When the new German jazz label Dizim gave Masaoka a decent budget to record this album of Thelonious Monk-related music, she went out and hired the dream-team rhythm section of bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Having herself played with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Omette Coleman, and Steve Coleman, Masaoka is in no way intimidated by the track record of the two jazz giants who round out (or square off) her atypical trio. Indeed, she leads the charge through nine superbly produced tracks, preserving what she describes as the raw and organic qualities of her “hollow tree with strings” while adding the refining touches of melodic invention and rhythmic intrigue.

By extrapolating from one of Monk’s own experiments — his “Japanese Folk Song” was a variation on an early-20th-century Japanese tune — she teases out the similari-ties in spatiality, phrasing, and angularity in Monk’s “quirky” com-positions and Japanese musical traditions. Play-ing off the command-ing presence of Work-man, an amazing harmonic and rhyth-mic foil (on bass and saw), and Cyrille, a sensitive sculptor of accents (on drum kit and percussion), Masaoka makes her koto sing, bending notes, strumming glistening arpeggios, and generally catapulting herself into the front ranks of the cross-cultural cre-ative music that may well define jazz in the next century.

— Derk Richardson