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Category: japanese music

Discovering Japan Without Graham Parker

The coolest thing about the new Rough Guide to the Best Japanese Music You’ve Never Heard compilation- streaming at Spotify – is that some Okinawan acts are represented. Okinawa is to Japan what Ireland is to the British isles; more rugged but also in a lot of respects more passionate and earthy, in terms of music at least. While this compilation was not assembled by anyone with Japanese heritage, it’s a very entertaining playlist and a decent introduction to the esoteric, surreal side of Japanese music. Most of these tracks are upbeat, many of them infused with sardonic humor. Obviously, Japan also has deep roots in innumerable other styles, notably noiserock and jazz improvisation, neither of which are represented here.

Utsumi Eika, with Munekiyo Hiroshi & Sui-i-test Sound kick off the playlist with Don-Don Bushi, a slinky mashup of traditional pentatonic min-yo folk music and cabaret, played with a jazz rhythm section but also bamboo flute and shamisen. It’s a wonderful night for a Tokyo moondance.

Yan, by Boomdigi Otemo is a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop/mim-yo mashup. Aragehonzi work a surreal blend of Tunisian rai, min-yo folk and rap in Detarame Kagura. Tsukudanaka Sanpachi follow with Eh! Eh? Eh!? Janaika, ska-punk with a pennywhistle.

Shigeri Kitsu do the same in Tokyo No Your, except with reggae and a steel pan in lieu of the pennywhistle; it’s over too soon.

The trippy, hypnotic, organ-and-tonkori-driven Okinawan psych-folk of Oki Dub Ainu Band‘s Suma Mukar is a real find and a triumph of sleuthing for the playlisters here.

The one-chord jams keep coming with Amamiaynu’s otherworldly, rustic Kyuramun Rimse. Okinawan sanshin player Kanako Horiuchi and Malian kora player Falaye Sakho contribute the vamping, spiky, cross-pollinated Hana Umui/Yaboyae. Rikki’s Kuro Usagi Haneta is an even more surreal, waltzing mashup of min-yo and twangy Americana.

Emiko and Kirisute Gomen reinvent a 60s Japanese tv theme as the cheery if skittish surf-rock hit Shoten. Chanteuse Lucy – of Lazygunsbrisky – is represented by the expansive, determined shuffle Hiyamikachibushi, with its a lively web of stringed instruments and a wickedly catchy new wave hook: if radio played this stuff, it would be the single.

Okinawan acoustic surf-punk legends the Surf Champlers’ previously unreleased version of Misirlou is as surreal and adrenalizing as you would expect, complete with haphazard shansin tremolo-picking. With its stately sway and guy/girl vocals, Tetsuhiro Daiku’s Kuroshima Kuduchi is both the most rustic and hypnotic number here.

Hantabaru, by Aragaki Mutsumi Naakunii is the album’s starkest recording, although the insistence of the vocals and shansin has plenty of drama…and stormy samples from the seaside.

Shamisen player Etsuko Takezawa contributes an elegantly spacious, rainy-day solo diptych, Ano Hi e no Michinori. The playlist winds up with avant garde act Cockroach Eater’s trippy, circling vocal/flute/vibraphone theme Saboten no Wakusei.

And here is where the Rough Guide playlisters may be thinking further ahead than many of us realize. Sure, digital music as a saleable item tanked years ago. But if you think that Spotify is going to last forever, whether as a free or on-demand service, you’re living in a dream world.

Japanese culture, happily, seems to be in a stronger position to survive than many others, at least in the short term, as the needle of death takes its toll. So far, Japan has largely resisted it. But word to the wise: if there’s a recording that means a lot to you, from any style of music on the planet, it’s worth owning in some kind of hard-copy form. Get it while supplies last.

An Epic, Darkly Profound New Solo Live Album and a Rare Brooklyn Gig by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

Pianist Satoko Fujii’s epic new solo live album Invisible Hand – streaming at Spotify – is dark and dead serious. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. If historical accounts are accurate, that puts her on the level of Bach and Schubert, along with Monk, and Brubeck, and Ellington. Those comparisons are deliberate – the astonishingly prolific Fujii’s work combines brooding classical intensity with in-the-moment jazz fearlessness. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year, a promise she’s fulfilled so far. She’s making one of her increasingly rare New York appearances this Aug 29 at 8:30 PM at I-Beam, leading a trio with husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Yoshi Shutto on drums. Cover is $15; be aware that she routinely sells out this venue.

The new album is the debut release on Cortez Records, a new label that’s just as impromptu as Fujii’s music can be. Teruhiko Ito, proprietor of the intimate venue Cortez in the small city of Mito, Japan, essentially launched it to release Fujii’s epic solo concert there from the winter of 2016. In the midst of a snowstorm, a crowd nevertheless came out and responded rapturously.

“Recently I have been hearing that people everywhere in the world are losing interest in music and culture, and the situation is getting worse and worse,” Fujii relates in the liner notes.. “However, around Cortez, there are no signs of that.”

Here are a few reasons why. While Fujii has made scores of albums, almost all of them are with other players. Surprisingly, while perhaps best known as an improviser, she virtually never plays a full set of solo improvisation. The first of this double-cd collection captures only the fourth time in a 25-plus year career that she’s done that.

Which is a paradox, for many reasons, not the least because her improvisation here can sound meticulously composed, while the compositions are spiked with off-the-cuff flourishes and some occasionally pretty wild displays of extended technique. Fujii opened that wintry night with a piece titled Thought, rising through frequent allusions to Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, to an intense but judicious crescendo and an ominously quiet, chromatically bristling conclusion. From there she did some scampering and some leapfrogging, but also built a methodical thematic variation and a crashing coda

The album’s towering, thirteen-minute title cut has spare, somber, low-mid register melody and some absolutely macabre moments, set to a autoharp-like rainy-day wash of sound that Fujii resonates on the strings inside the piano. In almost sixteen minutes of Floating, she creates a mystical ambience with spare, serioso phrasing and then a muted temple bell-like melody, again played with inside the piano. It sounds practically like a koto.

Fujii’s shift toward a steady anthemic drive that’s practically a stadium rock ballad is striking – how much is she messing with the audience, and how much just with herself? Yet, she ends it with her signature gravitas. She concludes the set with Hayase, working a rather grimly percussive raga-like melody against a central tone.

The second cd opens with a somber single chord, then Fujii makes her way into the ineluctably uneasy, spacious I Know You Don’t Know, leaving her phrases and spare clusters to linger. Flickers of Charles Ives contemplation contrast with waves of Cecil Taylor agitation

Summer Storm juxtaposes cascading, neoromantically-tinged phrasing with circular, Glass-ine melody. The subtle syncopation and ever-present angst of Inori bring the Satie echoes into even closer focus, with a cell-like Reichian precision. After the tumbling bustle of Green Cab, seemingly the most improvisational piece here, Fujii closes with a gospel-infused take of Gen Himmel, the title track to her hushed, rapturous 2013 album.

Fujii is no stranger to a magnum opus. Her densely orchestrated, harrowing 2017 Fukushima suite is her darkest masterpiece to date and was ranked best album of the year here. Her 2008 double cd Minamo, a duo with violist Karla Kihlstedt, is almost as shattering. This one is close behind, another notch in the hall of fame credentials of a rugged individualist who is as consistently interesting and relevant as she is prolific.

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number wind up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

Gato Libre Bring Their Rapturously Pensive Accordion Jazz to Gowanus

Gato Libre began life as a quartet making pensive, often plaintively tuneful jazz out of Japanese folk themes. As the Spanish name implies, a Romany influence appears frequently throughout their work. The nucleus of the group is the most formidable husband-wife team in jazz since Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln.

The astonishingly consistent and prolific pianist Satoko Fujii plays accordion with her husband Natsuki Tamura, the shogun of extended-technique trumpet. Originally a four-piece, they tragically lost their bass player in the months after 3/11 and are now a trio with trombonist Yasuko Kaneko. Their new album, Neko (not a homage to a redheaded Canuck songwriter) is streaming at youtube, and they’re bringing their increasingly austere, gorgeously pensive sounds to I-Beam on Nov 17 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $15.

If you’re expecting Tamura to do his proto-Peter Evans thing here, for the most part you’ll have to look elsewhere: the Japanese maestro has never played with greater elegance. Tempos here are on the glacial side.

The album opens with moody variations over a low accordion drone, Tamura’s warmly welcoming melody giving way to the trombone’s more uneasy tones. The second track shifts from stately call-and-response to a grittily triangulated conversation, Fujii’s calm, musette-like lines the voice of reason.

Tamura finally turns the ghosts and the microtonal mist loose in the third number, Fujii again starkly alluding to classic French chanson, Kaneko adding muted squall while Tamura channels the spirits of the hearth. Then the horns switch roles.

Distanced from Fujii’s slow, loopy variatoins, Tamura’s deadpan approach on the fourth track is pricelessly funny – no spoilers here. The trio take turns on the fifth tune, Yuzu, Tamura opening with what sounds like a Civil War bugle call and an amusing classical quote before Fujii builds to an unexpectedly wary crescendo. Kaneko takes a turn to bring in some blues, then the trio join forces for a brief, careful processional.

Finally, their lattice of voices grows more lush and lively in the final number, Tora. coming full circle with a simple fifth interval from the trombone that could be a a call to arms, or at least a call to awareness: this is very guardedly optimistic music for troubled times. How many more months til impeachment day?

Because this album is largely improvised, you will definitely get the tunefulness but probably not these tunes in Gowanus on Wednesday night. 

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

Charan-Po-Rantan’s Accordion Intensity Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Monday night at Joe’s Pub, any perception that Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan were merely cute, adorable, kooky real-life anime characters vanished the second that accordionist Koharu cut loose a vast, deep river of minor-key melody. Dressed in almost-but-not-quite-matching pastel cartoon pastiche outfits and matching headpieces, she and her singer sister Momo delivered a dynamic and often ferocious set of mostly original Romany and klezmer songs…in Japanese. But their charisma and tunesmithing transcended any linguistic limitation. It’s a fair guess that less than half the crowd spoke that language, or Romanes for that matter.

Momo spent the entirety of the show with a pretty hefty stuffed pig under her arm. Was it actually attached to her outfit? As it turned out, no, but that didn’t become clear until more than halfway through the two’s tantalizingly brief hour onstage. The show started beguilingly but slowly, the sisters seemingly taking their time on getting a handle on how to approach this refreshingly multicultural, demographically diverse downtown New York audience. Quickly, the energy went to redline when they brought up Alicia Svigals for an absolutely feral rip through a familiar Romany folk dance number (it wasn’t Djelem Djelem, but if you’re a fan of Balkan music, you’ve definitely heard it). Svigals, a founding member of the Klezmatics, possessed with chops as spine-tingling as they are elegant, seized the opportunity to revel in volley after volley of microtones and scrapes and glissandos. She would return late in the set for a Charan-Po-Rantan original that was only slightly less intense.

The two built momentum as the show went on, then dipped to what ironically might have been its high point, a gorgeously bittersweet, waltzing lament. Momo briefly left the stage to Koharu, who took her time building a darkly bouncy loopmusic instrumental, eventually capping it off with wistful vocalese over a playfullly offcenter beat. Although the duo’s originals were the most ornate and rawly exhilarating of the material in the set, they also played a handful of covers. A popular video game theme and variations drew chuckles from the crowd, as did a cover of the old 50s hit Sukiyaki. The only miss was a cheesy Neil Diamond song that’s been done before as J-pop – and only about half the crowd seemed to recognize it.

At the end of the set, Momo finally left the stage with what seemed to be a fifty-foot mic cable and went into the crowd, teasing the guys, standing on chairs and holding the audience rapt with her powerful, melismatic delivery. Where Koharu gave everybody chills with her rapidfire rivulets and stormy cloudbanks, her sister proved every bit as powerful with a similarly expansive range from the very top to the darkest lows in her register. Charan-Po-Rantan are playing a live score to the original Godzilla at the Japan Society tomorrow night, April 28 at 8 but the show is sold out. For fans of awe-inspiring accordion music and low-budget monster movies, there’ll be a waitlist at the box office at 333 E 47th St. starting an hour before the show.