An intriguing rabbit hole through which to enter the world of Japanese jazz.
The search for break beats has led crate diggers and DJs to far-flung places. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist One have found some of their most unlikely timbres in the work of Minoru Muraoka, whose axe is the Japanese bamboo flute known as the shakuhachi. This traditional instrument has led to a surprisingly wide-ranging discography, which varies from folk to pop to what one devotee calls shakuhachi jazz—sometimes all on one album. Mr. Bongo has reissued the 1970 album Bamboo, which showcases the variety in Muraoka’s work and offers one undeniable revelation.
Bamboo opens with a version of “Take Five” rearranged for mostly Japanese instruments. Muraoka takes the Paul Desmond line on shakuhachi, while koto player Kimiko Yamanouchi comps like Brubeck. The track hews to the original’s structure until two percussionists, Hiromitsu Katada and Kisaku Katada, step out of 5/4 time for a thrilling break. The take is typical of the album’s strengths and frustrations, shifting between convention and experimentation.
Shifting the tone, the folkier “Nogamigawa Funauta” focuses on string instruments like the koto and biwa. But Muraoka’s 10-minute “The Positive and the Negative” is where he fully achieves his synthesis of east and west. This, too, opens with a traditional string figure, but a lightly funky drum beat brings in a new sound, the echoes of the past clearly audible but laid over modern rhythms. Muraoka gets more variety out of the bamboo than you thought possible, and his band-mates, known as the New Dimension Group, make something uniquely psychedelic out of their heritage. This is more than just tripped out Japanese folk-jazz, as if that’s not an impressive enough hybrid. As its title suggests, the arrangement makes inventive use of both positive and negative space, each instrument a clear, distinct voice in the ensemble, with soloists breaking out for some bold statements. Again, there’s a showcase for percussionists, but the stringed instruments also get a chance to shine in fairly avant showcases before the completely accessible main theme returns.
With the album barely half over, how do you follow that up? That’s the problem with Bamboo, which for much of its remainder takes on ‘60s pop hits. This threatens to become kitschy exotica, but Muraoka subverts the hits just slightly. He takes the melody on The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” with a sour tone, and his bandmates, too, bend notes to veer just enough from Lennon and McCartney to tease pop fans. While the straightforward rhythm of “House of the Rising Sun” might signal a more conventional cover, again Muraoka’s group throws a curve ball with intense electric guitar and a shakuhachi solo that makes you appreciate why jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk was drawn to the instrument’s rich woodwind sound.
Muraoka doesn’t sustain the pop invention for a whole album. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and ‘Call Me” are taken on as straight covers that wouldn’t sound out of place in a lounge. But the original “Soul Bamboo,” while nowhere near the level of “The Positive and the Negative,” transcends the lounge-lizard title to pull off a psych-folk-soul, and a closing “Scarborough Fair” turns Simon and Garfunkel’s mythical resonance to the Far East. Bamboo doesn’t sell its future-past, east-west hybrid for a whole album, but it comes close enough often enough to make this an intriguing rabbit hole through which to enter the world of Japanese jazz.