Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.
The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.
The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.
On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.