Akira Sakata, Johan Berthling, Paal Nilssen-Love – Arashi


For years, I knew the Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata only from his guest turn on Last Exit’s “Needles-Balls”, a short track on their 1986 recording The Noise Of Trouble (Live In Tokyo), and, more substantially, from the next year’s studio album Mooko, a trio date with Last Exit’s Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson. With the exception of a 1984 tour of Uzbekistan, Mongolia and China with a 14-piece band, again involving Laswell, Sakata remained off-radar, in the UK at least, until 2009, when the first of his recordings with Darin Gray and Chris Corsano, a.k.a. Chikamorachi, were released, and, better yet, he played for the first time at London’s Cafe Oto.

Now nearing his seventh decade, the saxophonist remains a potent musical force, and this new trio with Johan Berthling (Tape, Fire!) and Paal Nilssen-Love (The Thing, Large Unit) is a powerful distillation of that potency. Arashi (Trost) was recorded in 2013 in a Stockholm studio. Its title translates as Storm. Fair warning.

Nilssen-Love kicks the title track into insistent life, and Sakata joins, unspooling coiling, tendril licks at a slightly slower tempo, holding the rhythmist in check. It’s the emphatically punchy entry of Johan Berthling’s bass (he’s credited only with double bass, but here it sounds electric) that really lights the touch paper, with Sakata as skyrocket leaving scorched bass and drums tumbling through turbulence in his wake. For the next five minutes Sakata is exhortatory, blowing raw, high-pitch note-streams bolstered by steely seams of tensile melody. Then for a couple of minutes he sits out, and though his companions don’t slacken, the listener BREATHES, only for Sakata to pitch right back in on a rare low-register note, then full-bore to the end at 12:26, where a controlled emergency stop ends in a percussive pile-up, and Sakata exclaiming “Yeaaah”.

At 6:43, “Ondo No Huna-Uta” (Rower’s Song of Ondo) is half the length of the other three pieces. It begins with the sounding of gongs, and a supple bass/drum rumble commencing behind a guttural vocal from Sakata that evolves into a remarkable vocal performance that’s part song, part chant, part imprecation. The rhythm is looser though no less intense than that of the title track. A breakdown at the end leaves space for a coda of gongs and drums.

“Dora” is relatively restrained, but maintains the album’s intensity. Berthling’s robustly thrumming contrabass takes the strain of Sakata’s renewed attack, which is just as impassioned as on “Arashi”, if a tad more elastic. Pliability yields some of the characteristic inflections that clearly individuate his alto sound, imbuing it with humanity. Again he lays out at midpoint, allowing Berthling and Nilssen-Love to flex, and this time they drop their intensity perceptibly. Sakata follows their lead, becoming not less loquacious but, momentarily, less pressurised. The conclusion is beautifully controlled and modulated, via a diminuendo in which Sakata drops out, Berthling plays a subsiding pulse, and Nilssen-Love sounds a wash of bells and cymbals.

Sakata switches to clarinet for “Fukushima No Ima” (Fukushima Now), which he opens quietly, solo, focused on melodic development, effortlessly incorporating into his lyrical flow the first rhythmic notion proposed by Berthling. Nilssen-Love is a restrained but more insistent presence, probing his full kit with brushes. This instant composition’s firming-up follows Sakata’s lead, with percussion falling away behind a contrabass perambulation, and Sakata allowed space to soliloquise. There’s an implicit swing feel behind the tune’s last-half development, and again the performance’s intensity is beautifully modulated, so as to retain much of the session’s intensity.

At the finale, Sakata returns to vocalising, as if engaged in a personal ritual, and this prompts a dramatically spirited response, again leavened with restraint, with bass and drums easing to rest. Proceedings end with the crisp sounding of finger cymbals.

This is a superb set, a rounded performance, satisfyingly intense and perfectly moderated. The trio’s sound has been beautifully captured, and the whole is nicely presented by Trost (the CD edition comes in a sturdy gatefold card sleeve, with art by Sagaki Keita). If you don’t know Sakata already, get in.

Akira Sakata alto saxophone, clarinet, voice; Johan Berthling double bass; Paal Nilssen-Love drums.

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Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilsen-Love (s/t) + James Plotkin & PNL – Death Rattle + Sten Sandell & PNL – Jacana

Buy Arashi via Trost’s Bandcamp.

2 thoughts on “Akira Sakata, Johan Berthling, Paal Nilssen-Love – Arashi

  1. Akira Sakata became famous as a member of the YAMASHITA TRIO (Yosuke Yamashita-piano, Akira Sakata-cl,as, Takeo Moriyama – later Shota Koyama-drums) in the Seventies. They had their acclaimed European première at the 1975 Moers Festival.

    • Thanks Ulrich. As you suggest, in Japan and elsewhere he’s been more visible, no doubt. For anyone interested, there’s a very good interview/article by James Hadfield in The Wire, issue 362 (April 2014), which looks back over Sakata’s entire musical career.

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