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Shinichi Yuize: Japanese Koto Classics

February 22, 2012

Shinichi Yuize Japanese Koto Classics original coverRoll: 8-10-14
Album:  Shinichi Yuize, Japanese Koto Classics

Reviewing recordings of works from the classical (folk?) tradition of another culture, performed by a master, seems like a superfluous activity. I don’t think I have the cultural knowledge to judge whether Shinichi Yuize “rocks” the koto or is merely a passable player. It’s possible Nonesuch archivists found him in a sake bar and decided to record him in the lobby before catching their flight home.

The answer could probably be found in the always informative and educational extensive liner notes that are provided with all Nonesuch Explorer Series recordings, but I’ll just assume he is the real deal. Perhaps it’s just best to compare the performances on Japanese Koto Classics to those of “American primitive” guitarists such as Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull. There is definitely a commonality in the way Yuize attacks the strings of the banjo-like koto one moment and gently caresses them the next. He also bends hanging notes with the same soulful expression as a delta bluesman, bringing into focus the similarities between the pentatonic blues scale and the Japanese Yo scale (also a pentatonic scale).

The main difference between these compositions, and those of American folk traditions, lies in the  far greater sense of Zen-like restraint here. At times these pieces are reminiscent of John Cage‘s minimalist works for prepared piano as the koto has a similar half-muted “thwacky” sound to it.

Japanese koto classics re-issue artworkSpeaking of Zen and minimalism and ideas of defining something by its absence, it might be best to describe what this album is not. Despite what you might imagine based on the slick new artwork Nonesuch has re-issued the album with (see left), this is not “new age” or “easy listening” world music. You could be forgiven in expecting it to be since most traditional Japanese music is recorded and packaged to be exactly that.

Instead this is a much more raw and uneasy listening set suited far better to the psychedelic artwork it was originally released with. Certain passages are attacked with an intensity not entirely conducive to meditation. And again comparisons to Robbie Basho are apt as string squeaks and other naturalistic imperfections can be heard throughout the sessions. This isn’t a sterile, glossy soundtrack for a day spa.

Though nowhere near as jarring as a lot of Kabuki and Noh theatre can be, Yuize’s anguished croon on “Fuki” and “Chidori” could be a bit of a challenge for those unaccustomed to traditional Japanese vocal stylings.  I have no idea what the songs are about but one can’t help but imagine them being sung by a 12th century Samurai who has come home from a war to find his wife has committed seppuku after being raped by bandits in his absence. Only they evoke emotions a little sadder than that. The liner notes could probably have helped me out here too, but I’d rather not have my illusions shattered when the songs turn out to merely be instructions for cooking the perfect pot of rice.

Even with the above taken into consideration, there is something quite soothing about the album overall. But as with most albums in the Explorer Series, the most meditative, beautiful moments still never veer towards gift-shop schmaltz.

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