Review - Meg Okura and The Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble - 'Naima'

Note: This review appeared originally on EJazzNews

Naima, Meg Okura and the Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble (2010) 

A confident collection of chamber jazz that is wide in scope and deep in feeling, follows the award-winning self-titled 2006, the second release from Meg Okura's group earns its audacious title, taken from one of John Coltrane's best-known and finest compositions. One imagines that, like Coltrane's, Okura's range of listening, playing, and traveling as a musician has lead to a natural preference for genre-blending and experimentation, andNaima does not disappoint in those respects. At its best, Okura's latest album boasts fresh textures and tones drawn from its eclectic blend of intstruments and its borrowings from 20th century orchestral composers.

The title track, “Naima,” is a reworking of Coltrane's ballad in which the Okura's lush rendition of the melody is carried forward over cycles of flute and piano arpeggios. The violinist's joyful improvisation rises above the work of her band mates on this song – perhaps by design. But everyone in the group rises to the occasion on “Hannah's Vocalise,” a tight number with a lyrical melody, quirky piano work by Mamiko Kitaura in counterpoint, as well as some excellent and subtle drumming from Willard Dyson. Okura's chops are on display in “Caprice,” in which she rips through a virtuoso cadenza alla Paganini, then settles into a fine Latin groove that features outstanding solos by Okura and Kituara.

Most far-reaching in its materials is the geographically-titled “Afrasia,” which opens with a driving interplay that features Jun Kubo on the Japanese shinobue flute, then, after a bit of Stravinsky-esque dissonance and transitions, drops into a subtle funk. “San San Nana Boshi” as well, offers a complex layering of instruments – reminiscent of Philip Glass – before the excitement gives way to excellent solos from Rubin Kodheli on cello and Orkura.

The jazz-only listeners out there might find the final section of Naima less noteworthy than the rest. The 25-minute suite “Lu Chai,” based on a poem by Tang Dynasy poet Wang Wei, is appropriately impressionistic. Opening with the dramatic “Empty Mountain,” the quite then moves to the wild “ Echo of Voices, ” perhaps the best section, but also a little too smooth in parts. The final pieces are more even in tone with the bittersweet “Sunlight” and peaceful “Green Moss.” Ambitious and challenging, “Lu Chai” suggests that Okura might have had Coltrane's A Love Supreme in mind when she was writing this homage to China's Poet Buddha. The suite may yet reward additional listening, to be sure.

Fully in command of the music as performer, composer, arranger, and producer, Meg Orkua offers a clear sense of vision of her world of music. Okura's Naima goes to many places, speaks in many voices, and is often rich with surprises and admirable in its aspirations. The work of a musician who is clearly interested in a musical journey, this album doesn't need to offer a sense of fully arriving. One suspects that, for Okura, the voyage – not the destination – is very much the most interesting part of her musical life.

Meg Okura – Violin and erhu
Anne Drummond – Flute
Jun Kubo – Flute and shinobue
Rubin Kodheli – Cello
Mamiko Kitaura – Piano
Jennifer Vincent – Bass
Willard Dyson – Drums
Satoshi Takeiski – Percussion
Dave Eggar - Cello

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