Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Masahiko Satoh - Then and Now

By Taylor McDowell

Pianist Masahiko Satoh has been a seminal figure in the history of Japanese free jazz since he came on the scene in the 1960s. More recently he has been involved in a number of commendable projects, playing with free jazz luminaries such as Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, Paal Nilssen-Love (and let us not forget the outstanding 2018 record with Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi )... His highly percussive, aggressive attack and stylistic affinity for jazz pianism and swing makes his playing wonderfully addictive, especially when we hear him sparring with such peers. These two releases, one from the vaults and the other more recent, offers snapshots of Satoh’s playing now and 20-years ago.

Masahiko Satoh & Subu Toyozumi - The Aiki (NoBusiness, 2019) ****

Here’s one from the archives: a 1997 performance with percussionist Sabu Toyozumi. Toyozumi, also one of Japan’s first generation of free jazzers, has led a long distinguished career in Japan and in the international field (a notable fact: he became the first non-American member of the AACM in 1971). Despite their long, intertwining careers, this is the only recorded evidence of a duo performance between Satoh and Toyozumi. The album’s title, Aiki, is a reference to a Japanese principle associated with the martial arts, whereby the practitioner redirects an attacker’s motion and energy with their own minimal physical expenditure.

The concept seems appropriate in the context of Satoh and Toyozumi’s playing. Satoh feels like the antagonizer here - his highly percussive approach and scalding attack often leading the charge. Toyozumi is a nimble and clever drummer who coolly fields Satoh’s momentum, deftly herding the energy with quick responses and playful rhythmic gestures. Satoh and Toyozumi leave it all on the table across two extended tracks (37 and 19 minutes, respectively). Much of their playing is characterized by the construction, reordering and fragmentation of rhythmic motifs, usually at breakneck speeds. Satoh’s playing has a distinctly “jazzy'' feel with an understated sense of swing in his atonal lines, broken up with manic flurries or pounded clusters that recall Cecil Taylor. Toyozumi provides colors by emphasizing the individual parts of his kit. I’ve read descriptions of his playing characterized as “melodic,” which sounds appropriate when listening to how he singles out the toms, cymbals, bells, etc. and gives voice to those parts. Of course, when the duo approaches climaxes (and there are many), keys and kit collectively form a dense wave of percussive might that reaffirms my love for this kind of music.

Highly communicative in spirit, and full to the brim in intensity, this is a virtuosic display by two monolithic figures of the Japanese vanguard. Highly recommended.

Masahiko Satoh, Otomo Yoshihide & Roger Turner - Sea (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

Sea finds Satoh in fine form, joined by fellow countryman Otomo Yoshihide on guitar and British percussionist Roger Turner. This 2016 performance comes off as a rambunctious free jazz-meets overdriven Hendrix-esque haze. The real meat of Sea is the 30-minute “On the Rock.” From the beginning, Satoh establishes an insistent motif that functions like a rollicking vamp while Turner lays out a turbulent, pan-rhythmic undercurrent. Yoshihide’s liberal use of effects creates a thick fog that is alive with electricity. It swells, moans, undulates and fills in the smallest cracks that exist between the dense interstices of Satoh and Turner’s playing. Piano and drums tend to be busier and kinetic in their output. Satoh’s playing, much as it was 20-years prior, is loquacious and spry. His playing becomes more assertive as the piece progresses until it seems like he is in the driver’s seat, piloting the group dynamics from a bottomless well of motivic developments. Turner’s busyness suits Satoh’s playing well, and together they climb to dizzying heights. Though far from being the black sheep of the group, Yoshihide follows a different muse than his partners - unfurling waves of texture and thorny shards of noise. His presence, though not always directly involved in the melee between piano and drums, is always felt: analogous to a dark figure that looms overhead, occasionally slicing through the mix with shrapnel-like outbursts.

The relatively brief, “The Saw,” rounds off the record and is an entirely different animal. Indeed, Yoshihide brings the aviary to this playful track with what sounds like a duck call, and his guitar can only be described as bird-like. This sunny affair is enlivened by a whimsical melody on piano and Turner’s quirky assortment of light percussion. The strikingly different tones of both performances make one wonder what other tricks these three have up their sleeves.

Sea is available as a CD from the label.


Colin Green said...

Thanks for this, Taylor. Satoh has been one of the most consistently inventive musicians in free jazz over many years whose albums are virtually self-recommending. I particularly like how you’ve sketched the dynamics of different and complimentary forces in how the music unfolds, what makes for an absorbing performance.

Kreilly said...

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