Miles Okazaki – Trickster [TrackList follows] – Pi Recordings P1682, 44:46 [3/24/17] ****:
Mythology, magic and folklore help create modern jazz.
(Miles Okazaki – guitar, producer; Craig Taborn – piano; Anthony Tidd – bass, mixer; Sean Rickman – drums)
Guitarist Miles Okazaki has layers inside of layers inside of layers on his latest outpouring, the 44-minute, nine-track Trickster, his first solo album in five years and his debut on the forward-thinking Pi Recordings. Okazaki may be best known by jazz fans for his stint in Steve Coleman and Five Elements, but he’s also spent time with vocalist Jane Monheit, and had early gigs with Regina Carter, Stanley Turrentine and has credits as a session musician. Okazaki’s newest material is complex and influenced by myriad components, but foremost among them is the socio-cultural theme of the trickster, a folklore figure and ancient archetype who uses mischief and/or magic to rupture or break down taboos, conventions or societal barriers. Tricksters are not what they seem to be, and that makes them ideal as thematic objects for Okazaki’s nine originals. Each composition relates to a separate trickster from various cultures across time, sometimes directly, sometimes less overtly and on occasion hidden within the mathematical aspects of some of pieces.
Okazaki’s quartet is suited for his outside-the-box music. Bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman are the long-running rhythmic team in Steve Coleman and Five Elements, while pianist Craig Taborn has a similar solo style to Okazaki, and a résumé which includes Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and saxophonists James Carter, Tim Berne and Roscoe Mitchell. The 5:20 “Kudzu” (named after the fast-growing, invasive vine which covers buildings and the sides of highways) acts as an idiomatic introduction with its winding, shifting arrangement and its unpredictable mannerism. “Kudzu” has an unorthodox vamp and a main theme which isn’t easily identifiable as such, and it takes time to discover how the parts in “Kudzu” are expertly linked. Okazaki’s ideas come to fruition on “Mischief,” inspired by the African deity Eshu, who was infamous for wearing a hat colored red on one side and black on the other, causing confusion and debate from those who see Eshu. Okazaki matter-of-factly states in his liner notes, “Different people will hear the playful rhythm of this song differently, none are wrong, but none are completely right, either.” There is a romping sensation to “Mischief” highlighted first by Okazaki’s elliptical guitar runs and then by Tabor’s idiosyncratic piano soloing. One of the many-sided tunes is “Box in a Box,” which ruminates on the Raven, a trickster in Pacific Northwest Native American mythology. Okazaki evokes the feeling of opening and opening boxes inside boxes with musical devices such as rotating all-interval tetrachords, symmetrical melodies, a perpetually fluctuating bass line, and a misleading drum pattern. Nonetheless this irregular process somehow adapts into a conventional musical form which can be followed, seemingly understood and immediately enjoyed.
Another type of trickster revolves through the evolving “Eating Earth,” about the Asian Indian Krishna, who could fit the entire universe in his mouth: if one looked into Krishna’s mouth, one could glimpse all, including seeing yourself, seeing yourself, seeing yourself. “Eating Earth” unfolds with an otherworldly audaciousness. Each instrument glides through time at independent speeds, sometimes clashing and other times combining, the musical relationship never the same. Okazaki says, “The melodic material comes from four interlocking complementary hexachords. The piano improvisation guides us through.” Perhaps the most intricate (and certainly the lengthiest) track is the 9:16 “The Calendar.” It’s about the Egyptian god Thoth, a trickster who beat the Moon in a game of dice, and created the 365-day calendar based on his percentage of wins. “The Calendar” is also one of the most mathematically precise numbers, and utilizes the historic Babylonian calendar as one influence. Okazaki explains the calendar is “built on the conjunction of 235 lunar months and 19 solar years. In this song, mutating harmonies wax and wane through all 19 configurations of three notes, moving by only one pitch at a time.” Obviously this kind of conformation can’t be done without some space and room. Thus, the bass and drums weave through interconnecting polyrhythms, and harmonic deviations are also done by Taborn and Okazaki as the foursome perform a series of measured alterations. Okazaki improvises all through, as pressure gradually builds and then abates. Listening to this is like watching the stars swivel in the heavens with a controlled but constantly spinning rotation, traveling forward with alignment which never rests.
Okazaki and his quartet conclude with two knotty cuts. “Caduceus” is motivated by the Greek trickster Hermes, who conned Apollo to give Hermes his staff, who then threw it between two fighting snakes. The serpents then wound themselves around the staff in harmony and balance, which resulted in the caduceus. Okazaki clarifies that “this song is made from multiple melodies in counterpoint, winding around a central axis, where the improvised challenge involves navigating across the borders of intersecting spaces.” As can be imagined, this is heady material in more ways than one, where melodies from the piano and from the guitar pivot in confluence and skirmish. Typically, the rhythm and tempo is outwardly abstruse, and yet there is a solid and driving groove which provides a contagious foundation. Okazaki ends with a short, one-minute acoustic guitar finale called “Borderland,” which he defines as “the threshold, the doorway out, the limited space that we pass through before moving on.” The brief composition has a slight, philosophical bent akin to Ralph Towner or John Abercrombie. Okazaki’s music is wonderfully complemented by the Pi Recordings foldout digipak package design, which contains a cover photo of Okazaki’s origami of a fox and a raven (both tricksters), the spread-out sheets of paper on the back side (which illustrate the elaborate folds and more folds used to fashion the origami animals), and Okazaki’s informative liner notes, located on the inside of the package.
Box in a Box