ICHIRAKU/SHOJI/WAKAO

London Bridge
Mesostics MESCD-009

If an out-and-out experimental drummer along the lines of Joey Baron or Gerry Hemingway suddenly joined a pop band popular enough to get on the cover of The Wire, fans would know about it soon enough and start analyzing what changes result.

Yet we know so little about the improvised music scene in Japan, that a similar situation happened last year with scarcely anyone noticing. Yoshimitsu Ichiraku, who creates a restrained yet relevant beat for the six untitled improvisations on this CD is now a member of avant-rock superstar combo Acid Mothers Temple.

For years before that he, like his associates here, saxophonist Masaharu Shoji and pianist Yu Wakao, had developed a distinctive, yet isolated musical style. When he did play with others, it was fellow experimenters American trombonist George Lewis, British violinist Jon Rose or locals turntabelist/guitarist Yoshihide Otomo and sampler standard bearer Sachiko M.

Who knows how he now plays with the Acid Mothers? But the steady, near American Indian beat he brings to track three, a duet between himself and Shoji on alto saxophone is forceful without being obnoxious. If he can make rock sound like that, more power to him.

Wakao, who is also a composer and professor of education at Hiroshima University, founded the annual SOUNDPLAY Creative Music Festival in 1998. More a workshop than a full-fledged festival, his aim is to let the participants play any type of creative music from blues to Stockhausen to undisguised improv.

His command of different free piano techniques is convincing here. For instance he references swift Cecil Tayloresque runs on track two, but without the angry intensity you associate with the American pianist — that emotion arrives from Ichiraku's samurai cymbal attacks and Shoji's mountain high sax cries. His quiet symmetry on track four, in contrast, suggests someone more out of the Bill Evans-Don Friedman tradition, with pacific right-handed explorations. Finally, though, the drummer's constant barrage of tones and tinkling temple bells gets him to speed up the rhythm and start playing ambidextrously.

For the Occidental listener, however, the most immediately gripping track is five, as ghostly wind and percussion sounds from Shoji gradually give way to the pianist working variations on the children's ditty "London Bridge Is Falling Down". Soon the saxophonist — who has played rock as well as jazz — indulges in some near Albert Ayler-like vibrato feasts that seem to fade away along with the tune. The assumption is that the musicians here are sophisticated enough to have the same sort of fun with that tune as Ayler and other Americans did with similar nursery rhymes.

Except for some seemingly ritualistic cymbal clatter on the final tune and the suggestion of a shakuhachi on the third, nothing in these improvisations sound particularly Oriental, which is good as well, since this is no ethnic field recording.

What the session does suggest however, is that while attention in the West is focused on Japan's pop stars and electronica pioneers, a community of mature improvisers has grown up there as well. With North Americans and Europeans now swelling the ranks of sonic explorers, discs like this, which are probably most easily found at its label's Web page: http://www.d6.dion.ne.jp/~kwakao/, portend that much absorbing free music will also be coming from Asian musicians during this century.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. 14:24 2. 2:59 3. 7:59 4. 4:41 5. 4:33 6. 6:34

Personnel: Masaharu Shoji (soprano and alto saxophones, percussion); Yu Wakao (piano); Yoshimitsu Ichiraku (drums, percussion, electronics)