Richard Crandell & Masumi Timson: Pacific Bridge

As album projects sometimes do, Pacific Bridge came about serendipitously. Attending Asian Celebration, mbira player Richard Crandell found himself so captivated by the performance of a koto group that he approached its principal player, Masumi Timson (also a member of the group Pink Martini), after the presentation. Rather than merely converse, Crandell charmed her by first playing the Japanese pentatonic scale and then “Spring Steel” (originally featured on his second mbira album and revisited on Pacific Bridge), the latter of which in turn prompted Timson to join in. In that moment, the seed for the collaboration was planted, and a recording session eventually followed, resulting in the eleven-track Pacific Bridge.

Anything but strange bedfellows, the African mbira and Japanese koto prove to be complementary instruments on account of the extreme contrast between their sound character. That the two blend so naturally is apparent from the opening moments of the first track, “Morning in Tokyo” where, on the one hand, we hear the bright, woodsy pluck of the mbira, and on the other, the steely warble and dazzling strums of the koto. Compositionally, the fifty-three-minute album presents an interesting mix: three pieces are improvisations (“Morning in Tokyo,” “Stream of Consciousness,” the two-part “Midnight in Oregon”), whereas others are Crandell originals as well as pieces originally written for the koto.

In certain cases Crandell plays a supporting rhythmic pattern that allows Timson to solo unrestrictedly (the aptly named “Joy” and Crandell's “Spring Steel” and “Peace in the Desert”) whereas other pieces see the roles reversed. Some settings, such as “Pentatonica” and the contemplative reverie “Stream of Consciousness,” capture the two in conversation, with one responding to the expressions of the other in call-and-response manner. Of course, things are never as black-and-white as the preceding might suggest, as a given track also features the musicians engaged in conversation but also pairing up and also functioning as both soloist and support. In such cases (“Japanese Lullaby” one of them), the material comes to life as a collaborative undertaking in the fullest sense. Though “Like a Bird” was written for the koto by Tadao Sawai, the musicians play it as if it Sawai had composed it with the two instruments in mind, so naturally is its episodic content shared by them. Pacific Bridge is an organic African-Asian fusion that truly does capture, in Timson's own words, “one of those rare moments of musical synchronicity, when two distinctly different cultures and musical traditions came together as if they were always meant to be.”

October 2014