Thursday, May 08, 2014
The shakuhachi is such a distinctive sounding instrument, with its breathy tones, non-western scale, and inherent drama, that it is often used to provide "world music" touches to film scores and pop songs. Of course, in Japan, there is a centuries old tradition around the bamboo flute, with all sorts of social and political shadings to its history. Kojiro Umezaki, a shakuhachi virtuoso as well as a composer, seeks to insert it into the arena of avant garde music by combining it with electronics and western instruments. While he has performed with the Silk Road Ensemble since 2005 and has had his works on albums by Brooklyn Rider and others, (Cycles), released last month, is his most complete statement yet.
Anyone put off by the term avant garde, shouldn't worry: Umezaki is a natural communicator who not only seeks to connect with cultures but with people. The first piece, (Cycles) America literally features his adopted country from coast to coast, incorporating recordings of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along with the voice of Walt Whitman. Surrounded by glitchy but warm electronics and plush vibraphone tones and influenced by Dvorak's New World Symphony, it's an intriguing introduction to the record. 108, the much longer piece that follows, dives head first into more distant waters, combining Umezaki's flute with a Korean drum (janggo), Indian bells (manjira), and a truly ancient Iraqi harp, the Santur. The quartet improvises within a predetermined structure and the result is a captivating conversation with contemplative spaces and dense ensemble work. While it is as polyglot as any of those Silk Road records, it avoids the crowd-pleasing crossover sounds that thrill the PBS set.
I heard Umezaki perform his version of the traditional Japanese folk song Lullaby from Itsuki in a River to River concert a few years a ago and it was a haunting beauty then as now. His performance is flawless, restrained yet still connected to the emotions of the homesick nursemaid from the song. There is less restraint in "...seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened...", which he also performed at that concert. Consisting solely of shakuhachi and electronics, it is a devastatingly effective elegy for the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Sad yet shot through with hope, it is a signal accomplishment for Umezaki as composer and performer.
For Zero is a luminous, short piece with vibraphone, percussion and gleaming electronics. Notes accumulate...then dissipate - it's lovely. The last piece, (Cycles) what falls must rise, features Brooklyn Rider in addition to Umezaki's flute and electronics. It is actually the same recording that Brooklyn Rider released on their Dominant Curve album in 2010, but "starts/ends at a different point in the structure of the piece" - a remix, if you will. The new version starts abruptly with two plucked notes on the cello (from around 4:05 in the earlier version) and then launches into a keening section, which also has an elegiac feel. There's emotional resonance here as well as a more intellectual pleasure in listening to the breathy, bending notes of the flute combine with and then deviate from the silky glissando of the strings. The synthetics add an unsettling air, whether from a low drone or a stuttering bit of static. There's a marvelous moment of resolution near the halfway point when the static gets taken up by the cello and all of a sudden there are longer melodic lines with an almost Gypsy quality. Umezaki's approach to the instruments is nearly orchestral here, as if each instrument were its own section. It makes one wonder what he would do with a full orchestra as his palette. Based on this gorgeous, rewarding collection, there is no end to where he can go.