Meg Okura and the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble – Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto – self-released AAM 0705, 66:31 [9/3/13] ****:
(Meg Okura – arranger, violin, erhu; Anne Drummond – flute, alto flute; Helen Sung – piano; Dezron Douglas – bass; E.J. Strickland – drums; J.C. Sanford – conductor)
Ryuichi Sakamoto may not be the first artist who comes to mind when thinking of a jazz tribute album. The Japanese musician’s imaginative and prodigious output encompasses early techno-pop (the pioneering synth-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra) and the Neo Geo musical movement (an unconventional fusion which melds Asian and Western classical music with other global textures and rhythms); he has written orchestrated works (his numerous soundtracks include scores for 1983’s The Last Emperor and 1990’s The Sheltering Sky), solo piano outings, Brazilian-stimulated music, and myriad more projects.
Listening to violinist Meg Okura’s self-released, hour-long, chamber jazz accolade, Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto (which covers material stretching from 1978 to 1998), it is clear this jazz homage is overdue. Okura grew up with Sakamoto’s music (she idolized him when she was a girl and was a Yellow Magic Orchestra fan from age five) and states during a four-minute promotional video, which also includes snippets of this album’s tracks, her project gestated for a long time. The 12-tune effort features a brilliant quintet dubbed the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble: Okura (who studied classical and jazz and has toured with Michael Brecker and Steve Swallow; leads her own groups; and has been in the studio with David Bowie, Lee Konitz, Ziggy Marley, and many more); flutist Anne Drummond (a solo artist who has been on the ObliqSound and Origin Records labels); pianist Helen Sung (a 2007 Mary Lou Williams Piano Competition winner, who has played with Clark Terry, Terri Lyne Carrington, Wayne Shorter, and others, and has a number of releases to her name); bassist Dezron Douglas (Douglas has performed and/or recorded with Pharoah Sanders, Cyrus Chestnut, Ravi Coltrane [he’s currently on the road with the Ravi Coltrane Quartet], and several more; and has issued four records); and drummer E.J. Strickland (twin brother to saxophonist Marcus Strickland; E.J. has also toured with Ravi Coltrane, Cassandra Wilson, George Colligan, and also heads his own bands).
The most recognizable pieces for casual listeners are from soundtracks. Okura evolves the poignant Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence main theme into a softly swinging adaptation which gradually escalates. The tune opens with an improvisation on the melody. Drummond then begins the unforgettable theme, and then joins the group improvisation as Okura picks up the principal motif, emulating Sakamoto’s original score, and the cut concludes with some lovely solo piano. Tenderness and drama also suffuse 1987’s “The Last Emperor Theme,” where Okura mixes jazz with Asian touches using the erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument known as either a spike fiddle or Chinese violin. As the track progresses, Sung and Strickland accelerate the rhythm and help turn the number into a firm jazz endeavor which never loses the essence of the original. The erhu is also prominent during lengthy chamber jazz piece, “Grief” (taken from Sakamoto’s first classical creation, 1998’s Discord). Okura calls her translation a “re-composition,” where she dissects different portions of Sakamoto’s symphonic work, and re-composes it for a quintet. The dynamically-arranged “Grief” has an aptly disquieting and atmospheric discernment which at times walks into avant-garde territory and other times has a cinematic characteristic.
Okura chooses bold, innovative steps on other interpretations; especially those Sakamoto did with strong electronic elements. Sakamoto’s version of “Thousand Knives” (the title track of his 1978 debut, Thousand Knives Of) has a synth/guitar, fusion feel. Okura’s bopping revision has a decidedly altered tone, sounding entirely new and nearly undistinguishable from the original source: Drummond’s vibrant flute solo and Okura’s pivoting violin are highlights. Okura also re-configures another electronic-fusion piece from the same year, “The End of Asia.” Sakamoto’s original is full of analog and digital keyboards and has a screaming guitar. Okura restructures the cut into a warm, friendly acoustic jaunt with rolling piano, a fast-moving rhythmic foundation, and sweetly emotive violin. “Riot in Lagos” (from Sakamoto’s 1980 sophomore venture, B-2 Unit) started life as a glitchy electronic undertaking akin to Kraftwerk. Okura re-directs it into memorable post-bop jazz accentuated by veering violin and Sung’s inspired keyboard embellishments. This independently-released album should not be overlooked. Both Sakamoto listeners and general jazz enthusiasts ought to discover plenty to enjoy. The engineers at Dubway Studio and Peter Karl Studio did a fine job with the production: the musical components resound and nuances are concise and rich, particularly the violin and piano interplay.
TrackList: Grasshoppers; Riot in Lagos; Tango; Grief; Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; The End of Asia; You’ve Got to Help Yourself/Ishin Denshin; The Last Emperor Theme; Thousand Knives; Helen’s Intro; Water’s Edge; Perspective.