Performance: 2011 Japanese Earthquake Relief Fundraiser

Tsukasa Taiko has actively participated in public events supporting the recovery from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster around Chicago. This year of 2015 included an event at the Richard J. Daley Center coupled with a photo exhibit chronicling the rebuilding process.

National presence, community roots

The Tsukasa Taiko Kids perform on drums during a fundraising concert for Japan's earthquake relief at the Chicago Cultural Center. (Brian Cassella/ Chicago Tribune / April 1, 2011)

2011 Japanese Earthquake Relief Fundraiser

Chicago's jazz artists play searing music for Japan
April 2, 2011

Arts critic: Howard Reich
Photo: Brian Cassella

Moments of hope sometimes emerge from tragedy, which is what happened Friday night at the Chicago Cultural Center.

For starters, a standing-room-only audience jammed the Cultural Center's sprawling Sidney R. Yates Gallery for a "Japanese Earthquake Relief Fundraiser." With minimum suggested donations starting at $50, the event was poised to generate significant financial help for a traumatized nation.

But there was also something beyond money at work here, with several of Chicago's most accomplished jazz artists – many of them Japanese and Japanese-American – producing music of heightened intensity and purpose. The audience responded enthusiastically, making the three-hour marathon an emotionally charged civic event, as well as a concert of distinction (even if the over-reverberant room posed acoustical challenges).

"Today, all of us are Japanese," Gov. Pat Quinn told the crowd, before yielding the podium to Sen. Richard Durbin and other speakers.

The most moving moments, however, came from the musicians, particularly when Chicago singer-pianist Yoko Noge led her thunderous Japanesque ensemble in sounds that fearlessly merged East and West, ancient and modern, simple and sophisticated.

Seated at an upright piano (couldn't the Cultural Center have provided a grand?), Noge dug deeply into the keys while sighing and crying and howling her original lyrics. Her voice remains a unique phenomenon in Chicago jazz, its bent-note phrases somehow fusing the folkloric music of Japan with the nuances of Chicago blues.

If Noge's sometimes throaty, sometimes piercing vocals had no other accompaniment than her lyrical pianism, she would have made an impact. But her Japanesque ensemble – staffed by veteran Chicago jazz and blues instrumentalists – built dramatically on her work.

Any band that features South Side adventurers Jimmy Ellis, Mwata Bowden and Edward Wilkerson, Jr., on saxophones is going to rattle the windows. Add to the mix blues guitarist Jimmy Burns, incendiary trombonist Bill McFarland, two Japanese taiko drummers and bassist Tatsu Aoki playing shamisen (an age-old Japanese plucked instrument), and you have the makings of a potential cross-cultural collision.

But these forces generally cohered, mostly because the performers listened to each other closely. When Noge sang, the jazz saxophonists stripped their lines to the essence, befitting the less-is-more aesthetic that courses through Noge's work. Once Noge yielded the floor to her horns, however, the saxophonists cut loose, braying as freely as if they were working an avant-garde jazz room.

Yoko turned in some of her most compelling work in "Tsunami," an original tune she had penned in response to the great Asian onslaught of 2004. Her lyrics expressed terror and wonder at a cataclysmic natural event, while the band surged alongside her.

But the evening was not Noge's alone. Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer reveled in boogie and blues, while soprano saxophonist Clark Dean (Noge's husband) played exuberant phrases in joyous duets. Even the repertoire they chose – classics by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and others – radiated optimism.

The Tsukasa Taiko Kids shook the room, their high-pitched chants and slammed beats on taiko drums carrying forth sacred Japanese musical traditions.

Earlier in the evening, classical violinist Yuki Hashimori played a Vitali Chaconne poetically, though the echo in the room helped neither her nor the members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, who played next.

In a conventional concert, such amplification troubles would have been quite objectionable. On this occasion, however, everyone seemed to focus on the positive, in that so much life-affirming music was being created for such a noble cause.

Other Benefit events in 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
6:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Hope: A Night of Jazz, Blues, World Musice & Human Fellowship for the Benefit of the People of Japan at Jazz Showcase
Venue: Jazz Showcase (806 S. Plymouth Ct. Chicago, IL 60605)

Thursday, April 14, 2011
Benefit for Japan collaboration with Stir Friday Night
The Playground Theater at 8pm
3209 N Halsted, Chicago, IL

Friday, April 15, 2011
Japan Tsunami Relief Benefit Dinner at Sunda Restaurant at 6pm-9:30pm.
Tsukasa kids, Toyoaki shamisen and Yoko Noge (private event)

Saturday, April 16, 2011
11:00 AM - Midnight
Benefit Concert for Japan, Old Town School of Folk Music
Venue: Old Town School of Folk Music (909 W. Armitage Chicago IL 60614)

Saturday, May 7, 2011
Japan Day at University of Chicago at 8pm

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Kellogg Northwestern University Japan Day Event

Friday, June 3, 2011
DePaul University
Japan Day Event

Saturday, June 11, 2011
Special Event Ganbatte Japan
Chef Judson Todd Allen - A Live Cooking Show Benefit Event For Japan!
Kenmore Live Studio
678 N Wells, Chicago, IL at 7pm
Event is open to the public and with complimentary admission!

Kenmore Live Studio

Thu, June 23, Thursday 7:00 pm, 2011
Tsukasa Taiko
MCA Fundraiser
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

Thursday, June 30, 2011
Tsunami Benefit at Northeastern Illnois University at 4pm
5500 N Saint Louis Ave, Chicago

Sunday, September 4, 2011
Japan Awareness with KONISHIKI and Tsukasa Taiko at 9:30am
Village of Schaumburg - Prairie Center for the Arts Music Stage