SAWAI/DONEDA/IMAI/NINH/SAITOH

Une chance pour l’ombre
Victo cd 094

Prime representation of how first impressions can be superficial and just plain wrong, this CD is anything but an Orientalized jam session, despite the profusion of Asian names.

Instead UNE CHANCE POUR L’OMBRE is a rarer article – almost 50 minutes of musical sound that exists in its own time and place, informed only by the experiences, sensibilities and consultation of the five improvisers.

Getting the Oriental echoes out of the way first, three of players are Japanese, and of those, kotoist Kazue Sawai is the sole performer with any sort of ethnic music background. Although extensively educated from the age of eight in traditional sounds and co-founder of a koto institute in Tokyo, she often collaborates with contemporary and jazz musicians such as reedist Ned Rothenberg. Her axe of choice is a 17-string koto, with four more strings than the standard instrument.

As Sawai has maximized her instrument, then contemporary master percussionist Lê Quan Ninh has minimized his, usually working with one overlarge kettle drum and ancillary implements. Of French and Vietnamese background, he has emerged in recent years as the one of the most versatile rhythm conjurer, in both contemporary so-called serious music and with a clutch of improvisers including Michel Doneda.

Doneda, who plays soprano and sopranino saxophones, is a longtime French experimenter with international playing partners, including membership in a quintet featuring Sawai and bassist Tetsu Saitoh. Tokyo-born Saitoh was in another trio with the saxophonist and has joined forces with traditional Korean as well as what he calls Eurasian players.

Guitarist Kazuo Imai from the Kawasaki, Kanagawa prefecture is the odd man out here. But he has played tangos, ethnic, experimental classical music and jazz with performers varying from Free Jazz saxophonist Arthur Doyle to cerebral bassist Barre Phillips, who also works with Doneda, Saitoh and Sawai.

During the course of two long improvisations, recorded at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, the quintet members let their familiarity with one another’s boundaries direct their interaction. In terms of ethnic musics, only Sawai’s harp-like arpeggios and extended glissandi occasionally reference the institutionalized role of her instrument. That said her intricate flat-picking and scene-setting dense textures are far removed from patterns she would chose in a folkloric situation.

Overall the constantly innovative and undulating result reaches a point of surging inevitability. Although sometimes speedy, the sounds are not frenetic as much as miasmic. Split-second interludes from Imai suggest a secondary Asian voice, since his skill is such that he can replicate Japanese string textures. Analogously however, he bears down on his strings with iron bar-bending strength – no sign of a gagaku stylist. Furthermore, his preference isn’t for zart strokes, but for harsh, whining maneuvers whose origin is American country blues bottleneck playing. For emphasis as well, he sparingly interjects resonating single-string snaps.

Concentrating on spiccato and slurred bowing, Saitoh’s bass work is for coloration not rhythm. Double- and triple-stopping, the infrequent integration of the 27-strings is pure serendipity, Asian by accident. Sul tasto and sul ponticello tremolos and multiphonics are more his speed – at different velocities – and there are points at which his practically inaudible, but tough continuum shapes the others’ responsive improvisations.

Examination of the booklet confirms that Ninh has only one drum, yet many more pitches and noises arise from it than could be imagined by any rocker banging on every percussion add-on from a music supply house. Sharing with Doneda the almost paranormal ability to produce electronic-styled impulses from his all-acoustic kit, Ninh outputs crumbling tissue paper-like textures, scraped and echoing crashes, wood-rending screams and rim and side shots that could come from a metal wash tub not finely-tuned percussion. Midway, during the second track, his response to prolonged arpeggios from Sawai and popping grainy timbres from Doneda is to single-mindedly strike his drum sticks such a way that it seems as if he’s beating tiny stones on the ground.

Breath and lip-controlling gestures from Doneda also take many forms. Master of the diminutive, unshowy gesture, he slurs circular-breathed tones at times and reed-biting shrills at others. Faux electro-acoustic peeping chirps and hisses take on the persona of dense, mechanized flutters – meeting similar ululating string lines. In contrast, during the penultimate minutes of “A Chance for Shade” his lip flutters replicate fowl twitters so convincingly that only the thick reverb from the bass and occasional guitar lick reminds you that this isn’t an ambient record of aviary sounds.

Climax of the instant composition and the performance occurs slightly earlier. At that time flat-picked flamenco-styled licks from Imai are slowly eclipsed by overblown ghost notes from Doneda’s saxophone, symbolically as if a black, seed cloud is looming over a formerly sunny day. Shrill sine-wave reed textures then unite with tapped, struck and vibrated bass strings for a counter melody. A few minutes later these sideband-like impulses cease and the tune dissolves into silence.

Not Oriental, not occidental, and at times beyond category, UNE CHANCE POUR L’OMBRE instead defines improv of a particular time and place.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Une chance pour l’ombre 2. A Chance for Shade

Personnel: Michel Doneda (soprano and sopranino saxophones); Kazuo Imai (acoustic guitar); Kazue Sawai (koto); Tetsu Saitoh (bass); Lê Quan Ninh (percussion)