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Natto Quartet // Richard Teitelbaum
Jazz Weekly
Ken Waxman


QUARTET NATTO Headlands 482 Music 482-1018

Adapting the sounds of traditional Japanese music to Western sensibilities has occupied Occidental musicians from the time contact was first made in the mid-19th century. Mixing electronics, computers and acoustic instruments has been another leitmotif of the mid-20th century.

That the musicians on these CDs attempt to meld both of these concepts is noteworthy enough; that they add a dollop of free improvisation to the other ingredients ratchets up the interest factor.

Each session features the shakuhachi or bamboo flute plus electronics. Prominent among those forging contemporary shakuhachi music, Japanese sensei Katsuya Yokoyama is featured on Blends, playing music composed by Richard Teitelbaum, who also plays a variety of computers and synthesizers here. The two compositions were recorded 12 years apart with different musical partners. The title track adds the percussion of Indian-born Trilok Gurtu, while "Kyotaku/Denshi" adds jazzers, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Teitelbaum, who first studied shakuhachi with Yokoyama in 1976, has always been interested in forms beyond common so-called serious music. Besides membership in the live electronic group MEV, he also played with a wide variety of musicians including the bassist's and drummer's associate Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and George Lewis.

Natto Quartet ups the ante on both sides of the equation. On the Eastern side is shakuhachi, played by Philip Gelb, who has studied the ancient Japanese flute since 1988, and usually works in improvised music, alongside folks like British saxophonist John Butcher. Also featured is kotoist Shoko Hikage, who studied Japanese classical techniques on her many stringed instrument.

Representing Occidental sounds are Tim Perkis, founding member of the interactive computer ensemble The Hub, who uses electronics-based, customized software and hardware, and Chris Brown, another Huber and an electronic musician and teacher who brought his prepared piano to improv bands with the late tenorman Glenn Spearman among others.

Definite program music, "Blends" (the composition), recorded in 1983, plays on the differences between Yokoyama's winsome traditional shakuchachi sound and the slow moving electronic pulses created by Teitelbaum. His synthesizers perform a dual function, approximating the sound of gagaku court music with emulations of the shakuhachi and sho, while inventing shimmering electronic wiggles, swelling organ pulses and string section suggestions. More meditative and gentle than the other disc, the trance-like sounds produced by the blend of shakuhachi and electronics is only interrupted occasionally by Western percussion or tabla pulses from Gurtu.

Subdivided into four sections with an equivalent back-story, "Kyotaku/Denshi," which was recorded 18 years later, finds the two main soloists even more accomplished on their chosen instruments. Related to the mythology surrounding his instrument, the flute sensei replicates the sound of small bell at one point and at others pushes out those jagged, ghostly whirlwind bass tones we're familiar with from samurai films involving menacing spirits.

With his PowerBook creating sounds as disparate as European-based, romantic keyboard pulses and harsh sampled percussion, Teitelbaum's bi-tonal melange resembles traditional Chinese as much as Japanese music. Then when the irregular rhythmic throb provided by Hemingway and Dresser is finally obvious -- they seem a tad unutilized on the CD -- some of the sounds seem to resemble those created by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. Teitelbaum adds yet another lick to the blend as the suite ends, with Yokoyama, playing his shakuhachi as traditionally as he can, solos over keyboard samples of Western-influenced Japanese pop music called Enka.

Nothing can be linked to pop music on Headlands, with each of the seven tracks a quartet-created instant composition. On "Yuba," for instance, Gelb first sounds as if he's blowing into an elongated plastic tube, then creates his own rendition of those ghostly samurai tones, while facing down crackles and accentuated metallic hints from Perkins. Brown's mobile preparations turn to high intensity chording, as the occasional pluck from Hikage's koto gathers speed as she begins strumming away on it as if she had a table top steel guitar.

Utilizing many of the positions from her instrument's ji or moveable bridges, the kotoist reconfigures her sound on "Kukicha" as half gagaku and half Appalachian finger picking. Meanwhile, the bamboo flute is soloing with such unforced airiness that you could confuse that pure tone for one coming from a human soprano. While he trills, Brown works his inside-the-piano prepared technique, as drones and percussion suggestions arise from Perkins' electronics.

Elsewhere, knuckle-dusters on the side of and inside the piano create more percussive intimations. The electronics let out Bronx cheers or create electro-acoustic shrills as the shakuhachi purrs out single tones. Overall, the stroked plinks and plucks possibly arise from the 21-string koto. Gelb can match stylists like Butcher or Evan Parker for circular breathing, or hack out abrasive, rubato tones, while at times Brown produces fingertip legerdemain from his felt pads and other preparations, delineating microtonal fantasias using note patterns that are as unique as they are unexpected..

Happily, none of the groups represented here have subjugated Oriental sounds to Occidental ones nor used Japanese scales and clusters for mere exoticism. By trying -- and for the most part succeeding -- in blending at least four different musical traditions, they've created CDs that can be investigated by both confident traditionalists and followers of the new.

-- Ken Waxman

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