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Album Review

Monkey, Pt. 2, featuring Acts II and IV from baritone saxophonist Fred Ho's multimedia musical Journey Beyond the West based on the Chinese trickster figure Monkey, features some new musicians on both the jazz and traditional Chinese instruments, but the sound remains roughly the same. Recorded in a different studio, the music has a fuller, more present sound than Monkey, Pt. 1 while still placing prime emphasis on composed sections that throw several distinct change-ups into each piece. "Overture/The Journey Begins" starts with yearning melodies but this traveling monkey is a pretty lively fellow, with "Monkey Strut" repeating the character's theme from Pt. 1 with more sax soloing. "Dance of the Devil Demons" rocks with an off-kilter big-band riff, "Chased by Bandits" is pretty rompin', stompin' stuff that sounds like cartoon soundtrack music with sax screeches for a bit, and "Monkey and Tang Seng Argue" has its rocking moments, too.

"Coming of the Pig" incorporates many of the elements Ho uses throughout this work — Chinese vocals with big-band comments kick off a really interesting piece that goes in many different directions, including a little free section with baritone guffaws from the leader. "Pig Is Happy" is almost a blowsy blues with whooping, muted trombone before settling into an orchestrated section.

"The Pilgrims Meet Friar Sand, The Ogre" starts off more atmospheric with a Chinese banjo/lute (pipa?) playing off sax and an ominous Ho foundation before a sudden, dramatic acceleration into a herky-jerky segment with silences. The leader finally gives himself a solo over a bass riff and drum foundation, swooping up to harmonic squawks and squeals and back down to a melody that frequently hints at pre-bop vintage jazz and quotes from Charles Mingus' "Boogie, Stop, Shuffle."

Act IV begins with "Arrival in India," with Chinese vocals and effective use of dynamics to move to a soothing progression before changing again to rocking mode anchored by Ho and some collective improv shrieks and groans for drama. The occasional big-band lushness in "Hell Is My Home" suggests that, if anyone, Mingus may be Ho's compositional model here.

"The Revolution Begins" with atonal flurries, bits of the "Monkey," and adapted "Mission Impossible Theme" battle sounds from Ho while "Sitting Around the Fire" quiets things down with bass, erhu (fiddle), and pipa. "The Mighty Battle" is somewhat subdued and never gets as wild as you would expect from its title, while the jaunty and light "Epilogue: Happiness Is Being a Monkey" closes things out with a reprise of our hero's theme.

If there's any distinction between the two discs, Monkey, Pt. 2 gives a bit more freedom to the individual instrumental voices as compared to the collective voicings focus on Pt. 1. Both are full of stimulating, constantly shifting music and moods and both work well as distinct discs. Again, the only advisory is that fans of Ho's work in the jazz field won't find anywhere near the same emphasis on improvising and solos here.

Biography

Born: August 10, 1957 in Palo Alto, CA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s

Fred Ho's prodigious gifts as a jazz composer were equaled (and augmented) by his drive to effect social change. Ho's leftist leanings informed virtually every piece of music he wrote, often by means of clumsily written agitprop lyrics. The results could be humorous and/or moving, but were more often than not simply leaden. Ignore the heavy-handed preaching, however, and Ho was a sensitive and imaginative composer who learned the lessons of Duke Ellington and applied them to post-Coltrane jazz. Ho...
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Monkey, Pt. 2, Fred Ho
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