FRED HO: ‘Deadly She Wolf – Assassin at Armageddon’, music & concept by Fred Ho, written by Ruth Margraff, Fred Ho ensemble & director, ‘Momma’s Song’ – music & concept by Fred Ho, written by Christine Stark, Fred Ho ensemble & director – Big Red Media, Innova Recordings 788 [Distr. by Naxos] 72:33 **:
I don’t get it. I admit straight up this was one of the most difficult albums to review I have encountered mainly because I found it hard to approach. Fred Ho is primarily a jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and devotee of Japanese popular art forms, such as Manga comics. The elaborate booklet that accompanies this disc is actually a small illustrated book, in Manga form, (almost like a mini graphic novel) that tells the story of these works. The booklet also, though, begins with some background info that I found just a bit disarming. It states that “the old Fred Ho died August 4, 2006 of advanced colo-rectal cancer” and that the “new Fred Ho, born August 5, 2006, introduces these never before released sounds of two grand works”.
Pausing on that point, Ho’s website (Big Red Media) reveals that, actually, he is a cancer patient and that – apparently – the dates in reference allude to a turning point for the better in his disease as well as his new approach to writing music. There is also some very helpful commentary in the booklet that explains the material these works were based on and subsequently turned into stage productions. One way to approach these works is to try to get into the story itself. “Deadly She Wolf – Assassin at Armageddon” (a captivating title) is described as a ‘manga opera’ and is actually based on a series of “Lone Wolf” martial arts movies made in Japan in the early 1970s. The music serves as a soundtrack to Ho and Margraff’s stage production that includes a narrator and some live action and dialogue but no “opera” or singing in the manner you would expect. Commissioned by the Japan Society in New York, ‘Assassin’ had fully staged performances in 2006 in Philadelphia. “Momma’s Song”, on the other hand, has never been performed. His librettist, Christine Stark, worked with Fred Ho to create a “cosmo-epic poem’ which is dedicated to the “69 missing prostituted women from Vancouver’s east side.” Reading the story/text to this was helpful also. In fact, in this case, a female performing what is basically a thinking-out-loud soliloquy on her reminiscences and present condition – sung in several places – is an integral part of the whole concept. It is a difficult topic and not in a style that I am too adept with but I did get the pathos connected with this pretty grim subject.
The only other way, I think, to approach this album is solely from the standpoint and listening perspective of a piece of music, apart from the stories. I found Ho’s music interesting and not at all “difficult” to listen to. In fact, I found “Momma’s Song” to be very overtly and progressively jazzy, with moments of beautiful piano chords and bluesy plaintive vocal musings from the protagonist interspersed with some really wild improvisatory sax and drum duels. Additionally, the music and style within ‘Momma’s Song’ pays homage to a 1969 work by Archie Shepp, “Blasé” (Shepp is a long time, high-quality jazz saxophonist as well as friend of Fred Ho’s) ‘Deadly She Wolf’, on the other hand, is, understandably, very “Asian” sounding with – again – moments of some nearly out of place electric piano and sax work, almost like a bad ‘70s cops show. Intentionally, I think, as the whole concept of the Manga-inspired Japanese folk lore coupled with impossibly capable humans is, unto itself, over the top. In both cases, the performances are solid. I especially appreciated the sax playing throughout and, in “Momma’s Song’, the vocal work by Jennifer Kidwell is quite good.
Lastly, the packaging is visually attractive but quite atypical; almost avant-garde. I do not know much about Manga or any other form of contemporary illustration work like that found in graphic novels. However, the illustrations by Mac McGill seen here certainly look good. It seems that the packaging highlights the very unique nature of this project, as well. The two stories and accompanying notes are assembled in the booklet are printed in a form of duplex where you invert the booklet to get from one selection to the other. It forces a storage or display of this product other than sticking it with your other CDs. It serves almost like a small table top comic book with a CD.
I opened by admitting that this disc is way outside my expertise. I still feel in many ways that “I don’t get it” – as a total package. I will say that, while Fred Ho and any other real progressive jazz is not my world, I did not dislike the music. I just do not fully understand it and find it hard to follow. I did struggle more with the connections between the sound and the story; the concepts were clear in the most “conceptual” way (pardon the circuitous logic) but I cannot honestly say that I “heard” the implied stories in the music, as in true opera. I suspect that seeing the staged project would help. I also suspect that anyone who does like very cutting- edge jazz and some solid sax playing would like this for that reason alone.
Lastly, one has to admire the creative energy and determination that Fred Ho must possess and I wish him well in his battle with cancer. Many people – including myself – believe that performing, writing and listening to music can be verifiable and holistic therapy for a variety of diseases and then – if you believe that and practice that – whether it is Mozart, the Beatles or Fred Ho, music is always a beneficial enterprise.
— Daniel Coombs