Obama is a crowd magnet, for sure, but I was surprised to see a line on the sidewalk as Yoko and I arrived in front of Somethin’ Jazz on 52nd Street on this late Saturday afternoon. After all, this was Akihito Obama, a Japanese shakuhachi player. Almost everyone in the queue was Japanese and I saw Satoru Steve Kobayashi, the owner of the club, checking names in a list in his hand. Luckily, I had made a reservation online earlier in the day. Clearly, this was going to be a cultural event. When we entered the pleasant club space it was crowded and we could see familiar faces belonging to well-known musicologists, academics and people into Japanese culture as well as some from the Japanese consulate in New York.
The musicians entered the stage and Obama, a thin unassuming young man, explained how this was a very important event for him: his first concert in New York! He further explained how in Japan he usually talks a lot during concerts, but he has seen that musicians in New York don’t do so, so he will follow their example.
He started the concert with an atmospheric shakuhachi improvisation which the drummer, Akira Horikoshi, soon joined. The sound of the bamboo flute was thick and breathy setting the stage for an almost mystical atmosphere. Switching to a shorter version of the flute, Obama played a minyo (Japanese folk tune) –like piece that led to an imaginative improvisation backed by Horikoshi’s drumming. Obama bent the tones of the flute so that the impression was almost like of a rubber band stretching, still playing perfectly in tune. The shakuhachi has only five finger holes forcing the player to find the right pitch by a variety of techniques that include covering the holes partly and in different combinations and changing the way you blow. Unlike with the Western flute, playing the shakuhachi involves changing your embouchure, changing the position of the flute, and even twisting your neck in a specific way called kubifuri. All these techniques contribute to the almost magical sound of the ancient instrument.
Akihito Obama started like virtually all shakuhachi players have, studying the traditional shakuhachi music created in the Buddhist temples and by the mendicant Zen Buddhist monks, komuso, hundreds of years ago and reaching its current shape during the Edo period (1600-1868). Obama is, however, more known for his own style of music that incorporates influences from jazz and electronic music. This was the first time we heard his music.
The Japanese masters were joined by a local addition, Brooklynite Joe Harrison on guitar. The next piece was a slow and beautiful tune, which Horikoshi accompanied on brushes. Harrison played a crisp solo, which Yoko classified as fusion-like, somewhat disapprovingly. This was followed by a very thoughtful piece in which Obama’s thick shakuhachi intertwined with a countermelody played by the guitar, leading to an effect-filled guitar solo that intensifying with Horikoshi beating his drums with mallets. After a mallet solo, the music calmed with Obama switching back to his longer flute. The last number of the first set contained an angular, somewhat atonal melody and some nice electronics work by Harrison.
I got the impression that Joe Harrison was a new addition to the group, which would explain that he was at times slightly stiff in his playing. And I could see him reading the music in a concentrated manner during several of the pieces. My impression is backed by the fact that the Somethin’ Jazz website announcing the concert listed Obama and Horikoshi, but continued “Someone – piano or guitar or bass.”
At the beginning of the second set Obama resumed talking. He said that Joe had told him to speak, but that he was nervous because his English teacher was in the audience. Needless to say, this brought out laughter from the crowd. Obviously, an American with similar command of Japanese – or any other foreign language for that matter – would not shy away from showing his proficiency. But the Japanese are modest and decent people and humility is a virtue, unlike in this country of brash and shameless self-promotion.
The second set introduced a special guest, Japanese singer Emme. The first piece Tsuki was about the moon. Obama introduced the sweet melody with the shakuhachi. It was then taken over by a solo voice and finally completed as a lovely shakuhachi-voice duet. Next came a lullaby for adults, Oyasumi, which Emme sang exquisitely accompanied by the guitar and bells. Obama’s playing was wonderful as he produced beautiful bird twitter like effects on the bamboo flute, reminiscent of the shakuhachi classic Tsuru no sugomori or ‘Nesting cranes.’ As the song evolved it developed rhythmic complexity but remained soft and soothing. Continuing on the lullaby theme, Obama pleaded with the audience, “please don’t sleep.” There was no risk of that during the beautiful, rather intense waltz that Horikoshi and Obama, wielding again the smaller flute, introduced and that made Emme dance before her singing part started. Joe Harrison had switched to an acoustic guitar and the song had almost Irish atmosphere, while Emme’s singing was tinted with shimauta-colourings from the southern Japanese islands.
The two final numbers of the concert returned to the trio format and demonstrated some of the most powerful shakuhachi of the evening. Obama masters the difficult instrument in such a way that his playing is never showy. Although he possesses a tremendous technique, he doesn’t draw attention to it: the focus is always on the music and the musicality (this is a sign of mature artistry, as was the case with Miles Davis or John Coltrane, post-Giant Steps). Harrison had also settled in and played a very good and inventive slide solo. The last piece was the most commanding of the evening, and the only one on which Horikoshi resorted to more conventional jazz drumming with sticks on cymbals. It involved some strong shakuhachi and electric guitar as the tempo was ramped up before the ending.
As the applause died, Obama highlighted another difference between Tokyo and New York. Here, there would be two other acts following tonight and so there was no time for playing any further. Indeed, the next band and some of its most eager followers were already waiting in the back of the room as we streamed out. It would be a challenge for them to create equally original and inspiring music and to fill the house with an equally dedicated audience.