Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lotus Position @ Somethin’ Jazz, 11 August 2012

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.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Elsa Nilsson @ Somethin' Jazz, 31 July 2012

Elsa Nilsson performed in front of a small but attentive audience. The venue was Somethin’ Jazz, the younger sister of the club with the same name in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, now celebrating its second anniversary on the 52nd Street in New York. Elsa had brought with her a band consisting of Renato Diz on piano, Yuka Tadano on bass and Cody Rahn on drums.

The repertoire over the two generous sets consisted of a mix of originals and arrangements of folk melodies from Elsa’s home country of Sweden. The young flutist from Göteborg arrived in New York a year ago via Seattle. It was clear that this was her gig and she was in charge of the music, despite her modest manners. The sound of the band was consistent and very pleasant, erring on the side of smooth contemporary jazz with no major surprises or dramatics. As often tends to be the case with flute-led bands, there were some Latin flavors blended into the mix.

The first set started with an original, which Elsa played on an alto flute with an almost vibratofree tone. The band’s sound initially reminded me of some of the classic Scandinavian quartets on ECM records (think Arild Andersen or Lars Jansson), with a crisp piano, string bass and drumming that accompanies the music instead of just providing the beat. The tune, which started as a ballad and moved between minor and major keys, also had a number of rhythmic changes that made it interesting. Yuka Tadano played her first solo of the night with a thick clean tone. The second piece, Extra Shock, also an original, was somewhat livelier with a brisker tempo.

The band fit perfectly into the medium-sized space with near-perfect acoustics, at least for this kind of music, allowing each of the instruments to be heard clearly. Unfortunately, there were only ten people in the audience (three of whom were Elsa’s own support troops) occupying about a third of the tables. Perhaps this is understandable, given that it was a Tuesday night and the performers were not yet widely known.

The rest of the first set comprised a series of three Swedish tunes, starting with a folk song from the Dalarna region, Kristallen den fina, arranged in 7/4. There were some fine moments in the tune with a low bass vamp against the drumbeat while Diz plucked on the piano strings and the flute provided some atmospheric effects. Elsa’s solo was slightly stiff tending towards somewhat square on-the-beat phrasing. She clearly found her groove in the next tune, Allt under himmelens fäste, which was performed with a vaguely Latin beat. The piano started with nicely dissonant tones and evolved into a solo reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. Tadano played an inspired bass solo. The problem with the piece was that about midway the there was a noticeable acceleration in the tempo.

The next piece was probably my favorite throughout the entire evening. Gläns over sjö och strand sounded like another folk song, but when I chatted with Elsa during the intermission she revealed it was actually a Christmas song written in the 1970s. Elsa’s mother had observed that Swedish Christmas songs all sound like they were funeral marches; hence, this arrangement had Rahn playing a funeral march tremolo on the snare, à la Saint James Infirmary, which perfectly fit the slow beautiful melody played in the low register of the alto flute. Elsa added some Arabic scales for flavor, which also seemed to go well with the melancholy Nordic mood. While the slow march was is proceeding towards its destination, Yuka Tadano picked up a walking bass line, still in 3/4, which led to a gradual build-up of collective improvisation after good alto flute and bass solos, before the serene melody resumed.
The final piece of the first set was a straight funk unabashedly in Herbie Mann style. Most enjoyable, I must say, with fun solos by Renato Diz and Elsa. Unfortunately, again, as Rahn started his solo the tempo accelerated so rapidly that I initially thought it was an intentional devise. After the drum solo, the band caught up and the tune ended with a solid steady beat.

During the intermission, Elsa was chatting with her friends and with some customers, while the rest of the band sat at one of the front tables. The thin Yuka Tadano dressed in a summer dress grabbed a large glass of beer. All the while the owner, or chairman, of Somethin’ Jazz, Satoru Steve Kobayashi worked the tables serving drinks and snacks to the patrons and charging those who were leaving (I heard one of the single men who had had a couple of drinks at a tall table complain that he had not been aware of the music charge. Somethin’ Jazz doesn’t have live music every night, so people apparently stop by in the pleasant 3rd floor bar just for drinks after work.). The bald-headed Kobayashi is also the man behind the original Somethin’ Jazz in Tokyo and is a well-known jazz character in Japan.

Sipping my Pinot Grigio, I was thinking about how some bands and musicians have left an indelible mark on the way jazz is played today. The classic Coltrane Quartet is an obvious example and its influences were evident tonight too, not least in the playing of Renato Diz. I could not help but discover nuances from the original Return to Forever, prior to its electronic fusion reincarnation, and Joe Farrell’s flute in some of the music tonight. So light and effortlessly moving it was.

The second set began with Arabic influences in an original in which Rahn accompanied the flute by drumming with his hands. The second tune started with a solo flute and then moved effortlessly into a medium rhumba, a nice transition for a Swedish folk tune. Elsa’s flute tone was getting thicker presumably as she was now more comfortable with the setting. The third tune, Buckwheat and Banana Bread (at least that’s how I heard her call it), was the set’s most modernist piece, with the flute and piano providing the most ‘off’ solos of the evening. It was moderately ambitious and good as such, but in some ways the least pleasing, perhaps because it came in between the generally rather harmonious concert, as demonstrated by what followed: a beautiful slow waltz in which all players shone. Elsa played a beautiful solo, as did Tadano on her bass. Rahn was at his most sensitive reacting to the whims of the soloists, playing slow triplets in tune with the piano.

The final tune was another Swedish number, Uti vår hage, turned into a Latin celebration. Renato Diz played was at his best, playing a full-fledged salsa piano solo that drove the small audience into wild applause. It was a superb ending to the good concert.