One mark of a creative bandleader is that such a person is able to orchestrate without making their instrumental/compositional presence constantly visible. For example, an artist like Miles Davis or Bill Dixon did not have to play more than half of the solos in a given situation for it to be clearly their music — the gestures and the directions that the ensemble moved in had a “stamp,” even as the music was collectively generated. Guitarist, electronic artist, and improvising composer Otomo Yoshihide is an artist of this variety, too — he’s an organizer and nudges groups into areas they wouldn’t otherwise occupy. As an instrumentalist, he’s far from a pyrotechnic showman, though he can bring the brimstone. Yoshihide’s discography is immense, and in addition to free-improvisation, it also includes noise rock, lowercase electro-acoustic music, and orchestral composition (even film music — his recent score for the Japanese television show Amachan has been highly acclaimed). A singular figure in Japanese creative music, he’s worked with an international cast of musicians since the 1990s, including saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Alfred 23 Harth, guitarists Jim O’Rourke and Keith Rowe, composers Luc Ferrari and Christian Marclay, and electronics artists Sachiko M and Christian Fennesz.
The economically-titled Quintet/Sextet LP was waxed during Yoshihide’s residency at London’s Café Oto in March 2009 and includes a sidelong piece in each format. Far from a first-time occurrence, Yoshihide does have history with British improvisers, having previously recorded with AMM’s Rowe and guitarist Derek Bailey. For these sessions, he’s joined by frequent collaborator Sachiko M alongside saxophonists John Butcher and Evan Parker (an architect of UK improvisation), bassist John Edwards, and drummer Tony Marsh (1939-2012). The set also includes two downloadable duets — one with Sachiko M and one with Butcher. The first piece opens with Parker on tenor, mouthing brusque volleys against shimmering percussive accents, arco bass digs, distorted scrapes, and behind-the-bridge howls from Yoshihide’s axe. The guitarist unspools fragments of modal pointillism but, through the use of volume pedals and wide-interval shifts, erases their progression. Intriguing front-line foils, Parker and Yoshihide play with different iterations of phrasal/gestural recombination, rapidly reinventing and subsuming movements or their sonic imprints.
The entrance of Sachiko M’s sine waves immediately shoves Parker and Yoshihide into longer passages of dirty clamor and staccato linearity; while low-volume and utterly minimal, these electronic sounds have a way of focusing the energy apart from the action. Sachiko is given a rather long space to let the sounds be themselves, with deft cymbal-patter accompaniment and barely-audible grating. Futzing with a dichotomy between muscular “free-jazz” and sparse lowercase environments is perhaps something of a Yoshihide hallmark, and it’s well-used here, as subtonal presences are a leaping-off point for a delicate tenor, guitar, and percussion foray. Gradually, Edwards begins shading the ensemble, and Yoshihide’s reverberant spires and junk-spray centralize the music’s force. The final section of this nearly 30-minute piece begins with an extraordinary split-toned bass solo and splays out into long-toned explorations, cutting a figure of patient resonance.
Adding John Butcher on the flip side presents a rare opportunity to hear two saxophone players whose aesthetic relationship is quite interesting. The younger Butcher is sometimes compared to Parker, yet his phraseology speaks to a materialist parsing of tones and a stark occupation with spatial acoustics. Parker’s performance is comparatively hardscrabble and sinewy, and their sopranos mine parallel territory against an unsettled landscape. As the ensemble is gradually infused with a bullish charge, their sopranos intertwine for a fiercely probing improvisation, bowing and sputtering alongside surging percussion and feedback before switching to steelier tenors. Similar tools are utilized for related-but-differing purposes, and the saxophonists’ improvisations thread a narrow area between robust complement and garish opposition. Like Miles’ compositions showcasing drummer Tony Williams or Dixon’s writing around saxophonist Stephen Horenstein, this piece operates primarily as a showcase for these two players, and the landscape adjusts to support and goad, adding obscure flywheels to breathy force.
Piano Solo consists of a 25-minute piece for feedback and piano resonance cut across two sides of a 45rpm disc. Taking cues from American composer David Behrman’s Wave Train (1968), in which a piano (or two) had its strings close-mic’d and the performer adjusted the gains to create immense swells of feedback, Yoshihide teases and torques the instrument’s resonant capabilities into an object of aggressive impulses and biofeedback-like drone. Yoshihide is perhaps less concerned with “riding the waves” of noise as Behrman and Gordon Mumma were in the 1960s, for his creative life has involved harnessing electricity as a specific tool and creating parameters within which feedback can be directed. The second side involves accenting the swells and vibrations with struck keys, mic’d (and thus prepared) strings ricocheting with obsessive clamor before dying down into a tense hum. It’s not as monolithic as one might assume — while severe, Yoshihide’s recasting of the instrument is materialist, colorful, and utterly immediate.
In a three-day program that also included performances with Marclay and AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost, Yoshihide and Sachiko laid the groundwork for future trans-continental collaboration and developed some extraordinary slabs of free improvisation in the process. Across a small catalog of live documents that Café Oto has released on their Roku vinyl imprint, including those from Peter Brötzmann, Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, The Ex and Mats Gustafsson, these two Otomo Yoshihide albums are among the strongest. As for indicating a place in the curiously sculpted bridges between improvised music and sound art, well, the simple singularity of these daring and committed performances should bear out their significance.