Now into his seventh decade, the Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata has emerged from long years of obscurity (in the west, at least) with a fully-formed, instantly recognisable sound, and an authority to rival that of his German contemporary and counterpart, Peter Brötzmann.
Arashi—with Johan Berthling (Tape, Fire!) and Paal Nilssen-Love (The Thing, Large Unit)—is one of Sakata’s potent vehicles: their superb, intense and impassioned, self-titled debut album Arashi (2014, Trost) more than lived up to its title (Storm, in English).
Semikujira (Right whale) is more subtle, with Sakata occasionally emphasising the inspirations of traditional Japanese culture. And, as with Flying Basket, Sakata’s recent date with alternative trio partners Chikamorachi (Darin Gray and Chris Corsano), plus Japanese noise-master Merzbow and Jim O’Rourke on electric guitar, it’s more multi-hued than free jazz initiates might expect.
The short lead cut, “Snowing on the Temple Garden”, has Nilssen-Love sounding small bells and brushing metallic percussion, while Berthling creates a soft-but-taut contrabass shimmer, and Sakata, on clarinet, reveals his most tenderly melodic aspect.
A sprung segue into “Blow of Humpback Whale” (7:34) then launches a chewier alto sax solo from Sakata with kinetic accompaniment – a fine, freewheeling, and implicitly melodic improvisation, and by far the album’s most predictable cut.
This sets us up nicely for Sakata’s inimitable vocal performance on “Saitaro-Bushi (Atlantis Version)” (15:35) – a composition based on a Japanese traditional that Sakata last recorded in 2001 for Fisherman’s.com, accompanied by longstanding champion Bill Laswell, Hamid Drake and Pete Cosey, the guitarist on Miles Davis’ sessions of the Agharta/Pangaea era.
The lyrics to this fisherman’s song celebrate a hard-won haul, and pay tribute to lives lost in the pursuit. Nilssen-Love gives Sakata’s ceremonial/theatrical vocal performance a sinuous, undulating percussion backing – a dragon-dance of combustible dynamics, from which Berthling extracts a bassline that’s positively thrumming by the time Sakata rips back in on rasping alto sax. Nilssen-Love’s drumming never loses its ritualistic rhythm feel, and he gets a fine solo passage before the piece burns down to embers, ending with gongs sounding softly over slowly drawn bowed bass.
There are more vocal exhortations from Sakata on the brief (3:13) “Again Sheep Said “Wolf Is Coming””, where he sounds suitably deranged and alarmist in the face of a turbulent rhythmic retort.
The clarity of the leader’s solo alto sax intro to “Semikujira” (17:43), accompanied only by rhythmic tapping on a tight drumhead, is a pleasing surprise, and Berthling’s bass insinuates a relaxed, meandering feel into the early elaboration of what then flares into an intense free jazz workout, a clear-cut snare drum solo, and more sweet solo alto with minimal accompaniment, slowly ratcheting back into taut, texturally dynamic three-way improvisation, in which Berthling’s bass assumes the animating pulse.
Sakata certainly puts his own stamp on the session, but the support he gets from Berthling and Nilssen-Love is exemplary, and the result is a nuanced set that bears repeated listening.
Akira Sakata alto sax, clarinet, voice; Johan Berthling double bass; Paal Nilssen-Love drums, percussion.
Akira Sakata, Johan Berthling, Paal Nilssen-Love – Arashi.
Akira Sakata & Jim O’Rourke with Chikamorachi & Merzbow – Flying Basket.
Oren Ambarchi and Johan Berthling – Tongue Tied.
Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit – Ana.
Buy Semikujira direct from Trost.