June 10, 2019. Drummer Akira Tana and his quartet, Otonowa (Sound Circle), are doing for Japanese standards what jazz musicians have been doing for American standards for years: respecting their past and infusing them with cool. And that’s exactly what they’ve done with Ai San San (Love’s Radiance), their third album dedicated to aiding those devastated by 2011’s earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan.
All the tunes on the record derive either from traditional Japanese folk songs or Japanese pop songs that are such an indelible part of their national music culture that their American equivalents would be less like the latest from Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran and more like something written by Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein. In other words, they’re jazz takes on tunes familiar to all (or most) Japanese people, not just Japanese millennials.
The first cut “Antagata Dokosa” (Where Are You From?) is a take on a traditional children’s ball-bouncing rhyme. The spirit may be playful, but there is nothing puerile about bassist Ken Okada’s arrangement. To say Masaru Koga’s tenor sax playing is showcased on this one is like saying a projectile is showcased when it’s fired out of a canon. Koga’s sound feels best described as a cross-pollination of Coltrane’s riffs on “Afro Blue’s” nursery-rhyme-flavored themes and Joshua Redman’s more contemporary, more syncopated sensibility. This is a good thing.
The title track follows and transports the listener into a much different, almost ethereal, headspace, with Art Hirahara’s piano playing casting shades of Bruce Hornsby and Tana masterfully maintaining a quiet, gentle cymbal groove. Koga plays the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) over the top of the rhythm section, taking the lid off this one to reveal an emotionally nuanced arrangement from Hirahara. Somehow Kenny Endo’s percussion on the taiko drum is what brings it all home, affirming a sense of hope for a community that’s been through devastation but has still managed to find beauty—in facing it together, and in music. A truly beautiful song, this one’s good for crying to whether you’re happy or sad or a little bit of both.
“Mura Matsuri” merits mention because it’s a send-up to Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas, and one that is particularly well done, cleverly and thoughtfully arranged by Ken Okada. Listening to Tana here, it’s clear he’s listened to Max Roach’s famed work on Saxophone Colossus a couple dozen times. But this is no mere impersonation of Sonny and co.; these guys do it their own way, which means, in part, more very welcome work on the taiko drum by Kenny Endo, lending the tune the calypso bonafides needed to elicit blessings from the Caribbean music gods.
Other tunes worth checking out include: “Tsunagareta Tairyo-Bata” (Tethered Fisherman’s Flags), an amalgam of traditional fishermen’s songs played in 12/8 time, featuring enthusiastic and artful improvisation, that’s ultimately tethered to reality and the melody, from Koga, Hirahara, and Okada, on shakuhachi, piano and bass, respectively. And “Peace.” No translation necessary here, this closer is Otonowa’s take on Horace Silver’s standard of the same name. Arranged by Koga, it’s jazz’s version of pillow talk between Koga—again, here, on shakuhachi—and the consistently great Art Hirahara.
And now it’s time to sleep.