Brothers typically come to their sibling relationship without choice, riding shared DNA from common parents. Flutist/composer James Newton and pianist/composer Jon Jang, however, were drawn into brotherhood nearly 25 years ago by a common musical DNA and a shared appetite for justice.
Each has achieved acclaim as a genre-crossing composer and virtuoso instrumentalist. Both are classically trained, with a strong foundation in jazz improvisation. Both are as likely to draw upon the influences of French composer Olivier Messiaen as they are from jazz reed great Eric Dolphy. Both are comfortable in a variety of musical idioms—from the African-American spirituals to traditional Chinese sorrow songs.
This Saturday they combine in a duo concert in Corrales, continuing a musical conversation that began nearly 25 years ago in celebration of music’s spiritual force.
A leading figure in the Asian-American jazz movement, Jang has been instrumental in bring traditional Chinese music into the jazz and Western classical idioms. He first encountered Newton in a Down Beat profile.
“What struck me was that he cited influences, and the two primary ones were Eric Dolphy and Olivier Messiaen,” says Jang. “He also cited Jimi Hendrix and Mahalia Jackson.”
As it happened, Jang was “obsessed” with Dolphy and Messiaen himself. “So we had something in common,” he says. “I went out and bought a number of [his] recordings.”
The two were introduced at the third Asian-American Jazz Festival in 1983 in San Francisco, recalls Newton, who’s been voted the top jazz flutist for 23 consecutive years by the critics at Down Beat. “There was just a simpático feeling that came between us right away,” he says. “I felt like I was meeting an old lost friend.”
Newton’s response to Jang’s music was equally simpático. “I was just blown away. I said, Who is this person recording Monk, and this incredibly complex piece from Catalogue d’Oiseaux of Olivier Messiaen, which is really difficult? And I said, Wow, this guy’s mind and spirit is wired very differently from the normal human being.”
Combining their shared musical and political interests, Newton and Jang first appeared together at an anti-apartheid benefit, playing Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration.” Over the years, says Jang, “We’ve done some incredible work during historic times,” performing in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, for example, and at the Beijing International Jazz Festival in 1997 during the Hong Kong handover.
In Beijing, they also spent 10 weeks researching the life of Chinese operatic star Méi Lánfāng for their collaborative composition “When Sorrow Turns to Joy,” first performed in 2000. Composed for two voices, flute, piano, and traditional Chinese string instruments and percussion, with libretto by poet Genny Lim, the piece celebrates the legacies, political and artistic, of Lánfāng and the African-American performer Paul Robeson.
Playing together and collaborating on compositions, they’ve discovered extraordinary parallels in African-American and Chinese music. Hearing Jang’s interpretations of Chinese sorrow songs, Newton’s response was, “Man, those sound like spirituals to me.”
When Jang mixed a sorrow song into Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” a Chinese musician had a similar revelation: “The musician turned to me—we’re playing ‘Come Sunday’—and says, James, it sounds Chinese!”
Newton thinks he may have found an explanation for the confluences in African-American and Chinese musics. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article several years ago, he says, “They discovered that the root of Chinese DNA ... is African.”
So maybe Jang and Newton are more closely related than it would appear. In any event, their shared musical DNA allows them to make music that speaks to the spirit in any genre.