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Take Five Celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with Stirring New Music

Tomoko Omura, "Tomie's Blues"

Born in Shizuoka, Japan and based in Brooklyn, NY, violinist Tomoko Omura has earned just acclaim for her command of the jazz tradition on her instrument, going back to Joe Venuti, Stéphane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. But she has also made a conscious and inspiring study of folkloric music from her homeland, notably on her albums Roots, in 2015, and Branches Vol. 1, in 2020. A follow-up, Branches Vol. 2, is coming soon, featuring Omura with an ensemble that includes pianist Glenn Zaleski, guitarist Jeff Miles, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jay Sawyer. Its most touching piece is "Tomie's Blues," an original dedicated to the memory of Omura's grandmother.

"Tomie's Blues" - Tomoko Omura from "Branches Vol. 2" Music Video

"I was very close to her and we lived together for 18 years of my life," Omura writes in the album liner notes. "This song is 12 bars long, just like the typical blues form in jazz, but the melody is repeated multiple times with changing note durations. I wanted to express the idea that life can feel long and short at the same time. And I imagined, at the end of life, we reflect on our whole lives in an instant."

Branches Vol. 2 will be released on June 18 via Outside in Music.

Jihye Lee Orchestra, "Relentless Mind" (feat. Sean Jones and Alan Ferber)

In a previous life, only a decade ago, Jihye Lee was an indie-pop singer in her native South Korea. Ambition and an inner urge led her (like Omura above) to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she quickly excelled in the composition program, turning heads and winning awards. She then moved to New York, earning her masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music, under the direction of Jim McNeely; her debut album, April, landed in 2017, signaling a promising new talent that has only deepened since.

Jihye Lee Orchestra: 'Relentless Mind'

Daring Mind — Lee's impressive second album, co-produced by Darcy James Argue — illuminates the distance she has traveled as a musician, while opening a window onto her life experience. Among its song titles are "I Dare You," a nod to Wayne Shorter's definition of jazz, and "Struggle Gives You Strength," which feels like a self-affirmation. The opener, featured in the video above, is "Relentless Mind," which is surely among the prerequisites for any 21st-century career as a big band composer; note how Lee establishes a space for her featured soloists, trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Alan Ferber.

"Jazz welcomes you to be yourself," she wrote in a 2019 blog post for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers. "It is the most accepting art form to which everybody can contribute, making it as lush and diverse as who we are, so as long as we accept ourselves first."

Daring Mind is available now on Motéma.

Abe Lagrimas, Jr., "Palindrome"

Representing the Pacific Islands in this edition of Take Five is Abe Lagrimas, Jr., who hails from Waipahu, Hawai'i. Best known as an 'ukulele virtuoso, he's also a first-rate percussionist who competed in the semifinals of the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition. His new album, Beyond Words, features him on both drums and 'ukulele, as well as vibraphone, bass and keyboards.

On the post-bop swinger "Palindrome," as elsewhere on the album, Lagrimas enlists several other musicians from the Los Angeles scene: Will Brahm on guitar, Matt Politano on piano and Sezin Ahmet Türkmenoğlu on bass. They recorded the tune in pandemic conditions, with each musician contributing parts remotely — a fact belied by the seamless rapport on the track.

Beyond Words is available now from On the Up Records.

Min Xiao-Fen, "Champaka (The Flower King)"

The jazz world's most authoritative voice on pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute, is Min Xiao-Fen — who initially learned to play from her father, Min Jiqian, a master on the instrument and music professor at Nanjing University. A pipa soloist with the Nanjing National Music Orchestra throughout the 1980s, Min Xiao-Fen emigrated to the United States in '92, eventually finding her way to modern jazz.

White Lotus is her soundtrack to Wu Yonggang's 1934 silent film The Goddess, starring Ruan Lingyu. The first single from the album is "Champaka (The Flower King)," and it features her not on pipa but rather ruan, which has a round (rather than pear-shaped) body. The other improviser on the track is Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi, who melds beautifully with the spirit of the song.

White Lotus will be released on June 25; "Champaka" is available now.

Taylor Ho Bynum, "Third Movement (a. What Shall I Do?, b. Mr. Jerk, c. Guide Us Out)"

Cornetist, trumpeter and composer Taylor Ho Bynum is a conscientious steward of the avant-garde tradition long embodied by a pair of his mentors, Anthony Braxton and the late Bill Dixon. In his own work, with bands like the PlusTet and the Convergence Quartet, Bynum has always explored a multiplicity of sonic possibilities — and yet his oratorio The Temp, with a libretto by Matthea Harvey, still feels like the turning of a new page.

Recorded in concert at Dartmouth College last February, shortly before the onset of pandemic lockdown, The Temp features a 65-member orchestra, with two seasoned improvisers in the vocal spotlight: Kyoko Kitamura, as The Temp, and Michael Mayo, as Mr. Prosper. The piece's third movement — a three-part invention in itself, subtitled "(a. What Shall I Do?, b. Mr. Jerk, c. Guide Us Out)" — features saxophonist Jim Hobbs and trombonist Bill Lowe as soloists, with Tomas Fujiwara in the drum chair.

The Temp can be streamed or downloaded for free on Bandcamp; a concert video is available on Vimeo.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.