Yoko Ono, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (a collective of Chicago avant-gardists).
Little did Aoki imagine that nearly half a century later he would be collaborating with Ono and several AACM masters for an album featuring Ono’s music.
But not just any album. “Skylanding: Music of Yoko Ono by the Miyumi Project” was conceived by Ono and Aoki in conjunction with a high-profile public art installation Ono will unveil in Chicago on Monday. Located at the entrance to the Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park, Ono’s Skylanding will feature a dozen 12-foot-tall steel lotus petals rising up from the ground as a gesture of peace, hope and renewal.
So how did this unexpected partnership with Ono begin?
“Last year she did a groundbreaking ceremony at Jackson Park, and Miyumi Project played the ceremony’s opening music,” says Aoki, of an event Ono called a “ground healing.”
“My understanding is that she actually like the band a lot.”
“Several months ago, Yoko and I were talking about the completion of Skylanding,” explains Robert Karr, Jr., president of Project 120 Chicago, a private-public partnership with the Chicago Park District that is overseeing the installation.
Ono and Karr felt that music had to be a part of Skylanding, “And she said: What about ‘Rising’?” recalls Karr.
Ono was referring to her mid-1990s album, which reflected on the World War II bombings of Japan that profoundly affected her and millions of others.
As she was making the album, “The memory of being a young child in Japan during the second world war came back to me,” she wrote in the liner notes.
“I remember being called an American spy by other kids for not singing the Japanese National Anthem fast enough (it’s a slow song, but they suspected that I didn’t know the Anthem too well since I lived in the United States before the war). I remember the severe bombing in Tokyo, hiding in an air-raid shelter listening to the sound of the bombs coming closer and then going away, and feeling that my mother and I lived another day.”
Those traumatic memories and, of course, the tragic effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, echo in the “Rising” album. Nowhere more than in its opening song, “Warzone,” with lyrics that reference “towns burning,” “throats choking,” “skin peeling” and “bones melting.”
In effect, Ono has picked up on those concerns in her Skylanding installation.
“The lotus represents hope, rebirth and spiritual awakening,” she told the Tribune earlier this year.
She chose to place Skylanding on a site where Japan had built a Phoenix Pavilion for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, presented as a gift to the people of Chicago after the exposition. That pavilion succumbed to arson in 1946, but in 2013 — to mark the 120th anniversary of the pavilion — more than 120 cherry trees were planted there.
“Soon after I first visited the site in 2013,” Ono said in the Tribune interview, “I began to imagine such a lotus rising from the ashes of the lost Phoenix.”
With Ono and Karr believing that music needed to be a part of her venture, Karr turned to Aoki, who moved to Chicago in the late 1970s to learn from the artists of AACM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other facets of the city’s percolating music scene. Ever since, he has intertwined the sounds of two cultures, East and West.
“If I went to Tatsu, I didn’t need to go and explain it,” says Karr.
“Tatsu himself embodies all of this in his work and his experiences,” adds Karr, referring to the connections between Japan and Chicago that Aoki’s music epitomizes.
Aoki’s job was to craft a jazz response to Ono’s music on the “Skylanding” album, which he does by drawing on two tunes from the “Rising” album and other pieces, his ensemble’s music ranging from tempestuous to serene (Ono does not perform on the recording).
The first track, “Warzone” (which also opens Ono’s “Rising” album) begins hauntingly, with taiko drums and traditional Japanese woodwinds giving way to screaming electric guitar and explosive percussion — quite appropriate, considering the subject matter. Meanwhile, the great Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander repeatedly howls the phrase “Warzone.”
Alexander’s sometimes earthy, sometimes airborne vocals ultimately emerge as the focal point of the album, particularly in the final song, Ono’s “Skylanding.” To hear Alexander chant its central lyric — with leading Chicago jazz musicians playing behind her — is to understand the power of Ono’s message and the AACM’s aesthetic.
“Skylanding is a place where the sky and earth meet and create a seed to learn about the past and come together to create a future of peace and harmony,” sings Alexander, “with nature and each other.”
That line crystallizes what the song and the installation are about.
As for the “Skylanding” album in its entirety, “It tells a story about the complexity of humanity and our ability to both create and destroy,” writes Karr in an email (Ono was unavailable for comment).
“For example, ‘Warzone’ is about the devastation she witnessed as a child in Tokyo during World War II and the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘Rising’ is a path to peace.”
You certainly believe that when you hear Alexander intone the life-affirming lyrics to “Rising,” Alexander’s voice bounding from throaty low notes to soaring high ones: “Listen to your heart/ Respect your intuition/ Make your manifestation/ There’s no limitation.”
Not that any of this is easy listening, by pop-culture standards. Instrumentalists such as saxophonists Mwata Bowden and Edward Wilkerson Jr., percussionists Coco Elysses and Avreeayl Ra and guitarist Rami Atassi bring ample ferocity to the proceedings.
“Some people may not feel comfortable with this type of music,” says Karr, pointing to its edgy nature.
“But in this context, sometimes you’ve got to go out there, man. And you’ve got to do this with heart.”
That always has been Aoki’s approach.
Working with Ono, he says, has been “really an incredible experience for me.”
The “Rising” track will be streamed on the project’s website, www.skylanding.com, which goes live Monday, as all the “Skylanding” music eventually will be.
Ultimately, adds Aoki, this work represents “my homage to Yoko Ono’s music — as a Chicagoan (and) as a musician that developed the sound of Chicago Asian American jazz.”
Ono and Karr could not have picked a Chicago musician better suited to the task.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.