Chicago jazz/improvisation with a Japanese cultural connection.

Hanami – The Only Way to Float Free [TrackList follows] ears&eyes ee16-042 40:20 [4/22/16] ****:

(Mai Sugimoto – alto saxophone, clarinet; Andrew Trim – guitar; Jason Stein – bass clarinet; Charles Rumback – drums)

The name of the jazz quartet, Hanami, is the Japanese word for ‘flower viewing,’ specifically the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers. That’s appropriate. On Hanami’s debut, the 2014 self-titled Hanami Quartet, the band shaped Japanese folk songs into improvisational jazz material. The foursome continues in a similar vein on their sophomore release, The Only Way to Float Free. This time only one number is a recast version of a Japanese folk song, but the quartet’s originals have an innate, organically-generated aesthetic which elevates the sounds and tones Hanami established on their first album.

This forward-thinking, Chicago-based ensemble includes Japanese and American musicians. Mai Sugimoto (who studied jazz in the US) is on alto sax and clarinet; Andrew Trim (who spent his childhood in Japan and later joined the Chicago jazz/improv scene) is on electric guitar; Jason Stein (also part of the Chicago music community; he’s performed with Mike Reed, Greg Ward and others) is on bass clarinet; and the always impressive Charles Rumback is on drums. The music these artists devise fits into the realm of modern creative performance, with shades of fusion, edges of avant-garde, a keen mixture of rock and jazz inclinations, vigorous sonic overtones balanced against ambient moments, and traditional jazz melodies crisscrossed with contemporary individuality.

Japanese musical influences may be mitigated, but other aspects of Japan have found their way into the pieces. The melodically rich “Shira Ito No Taki” gets its title from the Shiraito waterfall which Trim visited as a child. The falls are notable for a wide series of flowing and small waterfalls which pass through moss and other greenery. Sugimoto’s clarinet and Stein’s bass clarinet carve out a supple symbiotic communication, while Rumback provides a mid-tempo rhythmic foundation and Trim supplies supportive chords which add to the rhythmic furtherance. The lengthy “Donmai!” is a heavier and heady track fronted by vociferous guitar, driving percussion and an aggressive stance which mines rock and jazz. “Donmai!” is Japanese for “Don’t mind!” As in, “don’t mind us as we make some noise during this tune!” Over the course of 9:14 there are free jazz elements (Stein proves a bass clarinet can be a potent instrument, for melodic and dissonant music); anthemic portions; careening sax and guitar; intensifying sax; and Rumback crafts restless rhythmic changes. “Donmai!” is constantly on the move, darting and arrowing from start to end. There is a no-holds-barred demeanor to the speeding “Kita Nagano Motorcycle Gang.” This is jazz with a punk rock trait, like Sonic Youth meets John Zorn. Trim says the piece was inspired by an event when he was a young teen and almost got knifed by a Japanese motorcycle gang. “I was sort of reminiscing about that story to someone, and I decided to write a crazy song that would reflect the energy and the tension of a moment like that, when you find yourself in a situation you never intended to find yourself in,” Trim reveals. Trim claims when he arranged this, he was “thinking a lot about Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock.” Certainly he throws away pre-conceived notions of what a guitarist should sound like in a jazz tune.

Stein follows Trim’s lead, and delivers a fierce, reverberating solo. At the opposite point of the spectrum is “Hanaikada,” a gentle and slightly swerving cut which seems to be a tribute to a popular Japanese tourist area near Kyoto. The veering “Kanzemizu” (the second-longest track) evokes swirling Japanese kimono patterns which often make use of watery, rippling designs. This 7:35 conception is all sharp guitar slashes, bumpy sax gusts, and a nearly hidden lyricism which is concealed beneath a hard-hitting veneer of rock-hued electric guitar, bashing drums and percussion, and blowing horns. The Only Way to Float Free concludes with the only cover, an interpretation of “Kojo No Tsuki,” a 1901 song also known as “The Moon over the Ruined Castle,” which Japanese middle school students are familiar with. Hanami melds new jazz with older jazz on this version, forging a link from past to present. Gene Krupa and Arthur Lyman also recorded this composition.  Jazz fans may recognize it, since Thelonious Monk did an arrangement of this as “Japanese Folk Song” on his 1967 LP Straight, No Chaser.

The Only Way to Float Free is unique in a few ways. There is no bass player. This means Trim is more expressive and he sometimes does things which are different than a typical guitar in a jazz setting. Trim states, “I wanted [the guitar] to sound raucous and jangly and crazy, so I used more pedals and really pushed the amps.” The absence of bass also offered an opportunity for the other instrumentalists. For instance, Rumback tuned his drums lower than his normal set up. The horns, at times, also employ lower notes. The Only Way to Float Free was recorded in a conspicuous fashion which accentuates the band’s auditory attitude. The album was tracked straight to analog tape, which let the group utilize the older sonic characteristics on pre-digital studio gear with tubes and a bit of tape machine noise. Instead of fighting against possible distortion, they embraced it. Trim explains, “When you’re playing really loud, you can actually push the boundaries of the tape itself. This makes the sound a little more deteriorated.” This is most prominent during the more unruly cuts, such as “Kita Nagano Motorcycle Gang,” where the forceful electric guitar has a more rock-based than jazz-grounded sound quality which some jazz fans might find too rough. [Amazon only has this on MP3 at this time.]

TrackList: The Only Way to Float Free; Shira Ito No Taki; Donmai!; Kita Nagano Motorcycle Gang; Hanaikada; Kanzemizu; Kojo No Tsuki.

—Doug Simpson