A delightfully wide-ranging playground of timbres directed by a voracious musical omnivore.
Japanese saxophonist-composer Yasuaki Shimizu has an eclectic resume that looks like it belongs to several different artists. He has rearranged the music of Bach for tenor saxophone and accompanied everyone from jazz singer Helen Merrill to Deee-Lite’s Towa Tei and “Twin Peaks” chanteuse Julee Cruise. His 1982 album Kakashi counts among its influences Miles Davis and Albert Ayler, but filtered through such a distinct personality that you would be hard pressed to name the inspiration unless it was pointed out. Thanks to Palto Flats, the album has been reissued for the first time outside Japan. With its charming cover illustration of a playful house cat ready to pounce, it’s a delightfully wide-ranging playground of timbres directed by a voracious musical omnivore.
Shimizu’s early work leaned toward straightforward jazz fusion on such albums as Get You (1978) and Far East Express (1979). But in 1980, after he formed the experimental rock group Mariah (whose album Utakata No Hibi, also reissued by Palto Flats, we reviewed here) he began to put his jazz chops to wildly different ends.
This is an artist who will borrow elements of all and any genres and transform it into something all his own. “Suiren” opens the album with a sampled loop that suggests an electronic meow before quickly launching into an easy-going martial rhythm that backs up a brass sample of a classical melody. Shimizu enters on tenor saxophone, its deep soulful tone seeming to run counter to everything else in the track, and then modest vocals and a percussive chiming melody join. This all happens in a little over four and a half minutes, with elements returning and coming back in, and if it all sounds disjointed, it’s somehow not. Like the feline creature caught on the album cover, it may bristle its fur and make unexpected leaps onto the dinner table, stare into space as if at nothing and then just as enigmatically run off into the night. And you can’t stop watching it.
The title track follows in a gentler mood, with a dreamy marimba and minimal rhythms that distantly evoke Japanese folk, setting up a foundation for brassy jazz figures and dissonant background fills; Shimizu’s tenor solo is restrained, conjuring a smoky club ballad in an unfamiliar setting.
Shimizu isn’t the only player here, but he wields his mates like they’re extensions of his one-man band of surprises. “Koni Yoni Yomeri (Sono 1)” starts with a sampled, distorted trumpet loop with somber synth washes adding background texture before a dramatic piano line subtly shifts the tone. “Semi Tori No Hi” builds around a soothing vocal loop and a minimal drum figure that sets up a central brass figure inspired by Albert Ayler, but this is more soothing than anything the alto sax iconoclast ever came up with.
On any given track, Kakashi is likely to shift from ambient to jazz to Japanese folk to some hybrid impossible to label, and that is part of the joy of such music. You can hear the artist’s exuberance in his rhythmic, melodic search. Sometimes, he even pauses the eclectic button for a moment of reflection: “Koni Yoni Yomeri (Sono 2)” is a meditative bass clarinet solo, accompanied only by the soft sound of chirping crickets. Shimizu’s frequent shifts are not always seamless, and this isn’t quite as strong an album as Utakata No Hibi, but anyone curious about the Japanese underground music of the ‘80s needs to hear it.