In his book Free Jazz in Japan, Teruto Soejima writes of a jazz coffee shop gig played by guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and his New Direction Unit that was so loud it shook the paint from the ceiling and sent flakes falling like a snowstorm on the primarily laid-back hippie audience. Such is the intensity of Japanese free improvisation. Takayanagi, who died in 1991, was one of its most daring acolytes, his caterwauling guitar one of the first to take the lessons of Sonny Sharrock (and saxophonist Albert Ayler, for that matter) and put them into ear-splitting practice. Takayanagi might be better known if 1975 sessions recorded for the legendary ESP label were released at the time. But the label fell apart, this music unreleased until a Japanese CD appeared in 1991. Now on vinyl, April is the Cruellest Month is a must for skronk cognoscenti.

Takayanagi didn’t emerge out of the womb a fully formed free jazz beast. Early in his career he was a disciple of cool jazz pioneer Lennie Tristano, and followed such conventional muses as bossa nova on the 1969 album Flower Girl. Yet by the end of the ‘60s he was also developing what he called “non-section music,” for which he instructed musicians simply to play loudly without repeating phrases and without listening to what the other members of the group where doing. How could such a recipe lead to anything but chaos? Somehow, it doesn’t, and two of the three tracks here in fact come from a different recipe.

Accompanied by Kenji Mori on reeds, Nobuyoshi Ino on bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on percussion, Takayanagi leads a pricklier, Derek Bailey-like approach on the opening 10-minute salvo “We Have Existed.” The musicians are clearly listening to each other; in one segment, a percussive ripple leads to a mimicking string line echoed by Takayanagi, and the unit wreaks a well-mixed havoc that allows each member the space to do their thing. “What Have We Given?” which clocks in at just under seven minutes, is nearly as spacious, easing into a metallic din that drops out for Mori to take a bass clarinet spotlight with a scratching Takayanagi. The relative calm doesn’t last; Yamazaki’s cymbals come crashing back in and somebody lets out a yell, but nobody has yet fully tested their limits.

Finally, you get the Platonic ideal of Japanese extremity that you signed up for. The nearly 20-minute “My Friend, Blood Shaking My Heart,” which more than lives up to its title, appears to follow the leader’s favorite recipe, grabbing you by the ears and shaking you and the lead paint loose from the rafters. Everyone is playing at once and at full volume, and without any interplay to hold on to it could have been little more than artless noise. But Takayanagi himself defies his own decree; while Ino saws away like he’s at an Exploding Plastic Inevitable gig, Yamazaki clambers on and Mori squawks with maximum fury, it’s the leader who tempers his voice. You can hear his guitar loudly but slowly drawling as if circling his peers, making a circuit several times before he swoops down and lets loose. More than one free improvisational ensemble has been inspired by the biological metaphor of the heart attack, and this unit, despite orders not to listen to each other, seems to collectively form a picture of the body in chaos, with dangerous blood pressure pumping into and out of the shaken heart.

For 20 minutes, all hell breaks loose, but it’s not without structure, as the sheer physical limitations of the musicians requires somebody to back off if only for a moment. On the other hand, sometimes the tempo actually increases; around 11 and a half minutes in, Yamazaki, already at full power, seems to start drumming faster. What is the meaning of all this speed? April is the Cruellest Month, particularly in its all-out final track, seems like an athletic feat as much as a musical one, pushing the boundaries of music much like a long-distance runner pushes the limits of their body, and then, finding its breaking point, goes beyond it. Suddenly, it’s over. Like a thrilling amusement park ride, the noise-minded among you will immediately shout, “Again!” and line up for another round.

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