As much as improvised music is “world” music and free improvisation is practiced as an artform from Finland to Australia to India to Mexico, American audiences tend to think of it as “their” art and rarely expand its reach beyond the Afro-European trail. Jazz has been popular in Japan since the close of the Second World War, with a voracious appetite for American and Afro-American culture as a source of inspiration for many years. As with European creative music, the Japanese improvisation climate began to reject and break free of American influence in the heady days of the 1960s, with the blues as it is lived and played among “jazz” musicians an impossible litmus. A case could be made for the idea that, contra European free improvisation, Japanese musicians did not embrace traditional folk and native classical forms of music in their search for improvisational sources, reveling instead in a severe take on abstract density. To uphold such a rule would be folly, though — the influence from traditional Japanese drumming that one hears in the music of Masahiko Togashi and Hiroshi Yamazaki, for example. But the catharsis of Japanese free music is often exhibited with extreme facility, high volume, and extended techniques — noisy brutality in the slabs of pure sound coming from Masayuki Takayanagi’s guitar in the New Direction Unit or perhaps a cooler relentlessness in the piano-saxophone-drums trio of pianist Yosuke Yamashita. Of course, neither example offers anything toward a complete vision of the Japanese creative music scene, but to many, extremism is the essence of improvised music in Japan.
The Yamashita Trio’s saxophone chair was occupied in the 1970s by reedman Akira Sakata, who went on to form his own trio (with bass and drum accompaniment) in the early 1980s. Sakata’s work as a leader is certainly full-bore, with alto and clarinet and their compressed ebullience front and center, but there’s an undeniable humor and joy in his music as well. A 1981 performance at the Moers New Jazz Festival with his working trio delved into vocal theatrics that, while strange and humorous, were also rooted in musicality. Although Sakata began working with bassist-producer Bill Laswell in the 1980s, culminating in collaborations that embraced Japanese and African folk music, his name hasn’t been on the radar of all but the most diehard followers of free music until recently, following a well-received 2009 collaboration with drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Darin Gray (collectively known as Chikamorachi) for Family Vineyard titled Friendly Pants. Two new sets’ worth of material recorded live in Japan and at Chicago’s Hungry Brain, respectively, continue what Friendly Pants set in motion, namely an empathetic, soulful, and technically proficient rhythm section able to integrate themselves into Sakata’s winkingly abstract and vibrant artistic vision.
Sakata first worked with Chikamorachi and guitarist Jim O’Rourke in 2005 on the Japan-only Tetrodoxin CD (also featuring Manabu Sakata and Masaka Yoshimi on percussion). Three years later, they toured Japan as a quartet and the results have been issued as And That’s the Story of Jazz, dedicated to Yoshitaka Sugaya, a promoter of new jazz in Ootuchi and a victim of the recent earthquake and tsunami. The set covers two discs and sections of performances in Kyoto, Hamazaki, and Nagoya that balance absolutely blistering and unhinged improvised music with sensitive rawness, which is not an easy feat. Sakata has a searing, hard-bitten tone on the alto that is reminiscent of Englishman Mike Osborne at his most cathartic, “out-for-blood” intensity, erasing intervals with the speed of Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler and Parkerian, batty glee. The opening to “Nagoya 1” sees themes flash by in an instant, boppish reference played backwards and forward, inventing changes where, judging by the swirling electrified environment around him, they would otherwise not exist. Gray and Corsano seem to be fighting for their lives to keep up with the saxophonist, though this isn’t pugilistic music — it’s too exuberant for that. It’s a gas to hear Jim O’Rourke in this context, too, for his clear respect for improvising electric guitarists like Takayanagi, Ray Russell, Terje Rypdal, and Rudolph Grey invites both impregnable walls of sound and dexterous, maddening commentary. When the guitarist drops out, alto and rhythm continue in a glossolalia of banshee-touched bebop, fills, accents, and sweaty pluck. Ten minutes in, his alto is left hanging with frozen and delicately strummed guitar accompaniment, drenched in psychedelic reverb (à la early Rypdal).
Malleted rustle and torqued purrs close the first “Nagoya” piece, deep arco bass and bowed guitar strings providing a solemn meditation for Sakata’s saccharine wide-vibrato playing in a gorgeous cry. He opens the second movement solo, moving from harried peals and burble to sweet upturned phrases before a tumbling onslaught ensues, fuzzed-distortion and free-time wash that, in a blink, turns into demented jazz-rock fusion, O’Rourke’s wiry mass-projections a strange but fascinating bedfellow with Sakata’s relentless gobs. Lest one forget the importance of Chikamorachi in making this quartet “sing” the way it does, the lightness of Corsano’s playing dovetails with his unflagging insistence and impeccable time. It’s been said elsewhere by this writer, but perhaps his relocation to England goes hand-in-hand with an affinity for exacting delicacy of the type propagated by John Stevens, who could find an equal home in post-bop, non-idiomatic improvisation, and jazz-rock hybrids. Gray’s pizzicato is similarly an exhausting motor, patterning rhythms and chord structures that give a solid, forward motion to the collision of exuberant swing and devilish skronk that Sakata and O’Rourke have built.
Live at the Hungry Brain is the stripped-down companion set, using the power trio format that was Sakata’s bread and butter in the early 1980s. That said, it’s no less explosive and dynamic than And That’s the Story of Jazz, but with alto and clarinet as the front line one can focus one’s hearing toward a more concise unit. On “Friendly Pants,” the shortest of the three tracks here, Corsano stokes the fires in expanding and contracting circles, bashed accents skimming atop Sakata’s athletic and joyous sermon as Gray provides a raw, pulsing bottom end. “Miwataseba” finds Sakata on clarinet, warbling madly along with what sounds like a prepared bass and Corsano in a more random-seeming pattern of accents. As much air as is forced through the clarinet, Sakata evinces an introspective quality, calmly swinging as he moves from chalumeau to harsh brays and back while Chikamorachi toys with time. Unaccompanied vocal theatrics emerge seamlessly, Sakata’s tone and phrasing of strangulated, raw expression having a direct parallel with similar lines on his horns, as the bassist bull fiddles accompaniment. One assumes that it’s Sakata on violin or erhu needling ponticello at the start of “Wild Chickens in the Lake M.,” as bass and drums build a throaty, swirling stomp. Switching to alto, the trio becomes a positively swaggering endeavor, Sakata chomping flatly at the bit against a continually reconfigured vamp as Corsano builds a turbulent mass of forward motion. It’s not too long before any sense of “walk” is obliterated by a tumult of sound and rhythm, but the trio’s complete and utter straight-arrow explosiveness is absolutely compelling.
While Live at the Hungry Brain isn’t quite as far-reaching as the quartet music with O’Rourke, it’s an incredibly concise, volatile, and, yes, joyous set of improvised music, and for that, one wouldn’t want to be without it. Both sets of music offer proof that, even if he might not become a household name, Akira Sakata’s music should be heard by anyone with an interest in creative music worldwide.