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.