Tesla Manaf: Tesla Manaf
MoonJune Records

simakDialog: Live at Orion
MoonJune Records

Yagull: Kai
MoonJune Records

These recent releases from MoonJune Records place guitar playing at the center of their respective instrumental universes, but beyond that numerous differences apply. Tesla Manaf's self-titled debut is an eclectic and oft-dazzling set that highlights the young artist's compositional talent as much as his jazz-inflected guitar playing; above all else, simakDialog's double-CD live recording documents the fluid interplay between the outfit's electric guitarist and electric pianist; and Yagull's Kai is founded on the sensitive interaction between its co-leaders' acoustic guitar and piano. As evidenced by the fact that both Manaf and simakDialog are rooted in Indonesia, one of the things that argues powerfully on MoonJune Records' behalf is the label's ongoing enthusiasm for music beyond US shores.

The cover of Manaf's self-titled release shows the Indonesian guitarist surrounded by a brightly coloured landscape packed with detail, the photo-illustration an apt visual metaphor for the album's music. It's a comprehensive presentation of his artistry, too, give that it supplements eight tracks released in Indonesia as A Man's Relationship With His Fragile Area in 2014 with six issued in 2011 as It's All Yours. While that does make for a long album, it also provides an in-depth portrait of Manaf as a player and composer, especially when the musicians playing alongside him are different in the two cases.

As has been noted elsewhere, his warm guitar sound resembles Pat Metheny's, one of Manaf's primary influences (he's even been called ‘Indonesia's Pat Metheny,' something about which he's expressed some degree of frustration). Based on the evidence at hand, there's no denying the Metheny influence, both in the fluid musicality of Manaf's guitar playing but also in the adventurous sensibility exemplified by the broad stylistic terrain covered on the album. While Manaf's compositions range between those that are direct and accessible and others that are complex and intricately structured, it's the former that prove to be the most effective of the sixteen pieces on the album.

The most appealing thing about the 2014 material is the interplay between Hadis ‘Hulhul' Hendarisman, who plays clarinet, trompet pencak, and Indonesian flute, and Manaf (upright bassist Rudy Zulkarnaen and drummer Desal Sembada are the other musicians on the session). The brief, multi-layered “Multiply By Zero” aside, Manaf doesn't treat the tracks as springboards for guitar soloing but rather as through-composed pieces that showcase the talents of all four musicians. The spotlight is shared equally by Hulhul and Manaf, so much so that if one didn't know otherwise one could take the release for being one credited to both of them as opposed to Manaf only. Many arresting compositional moments arise, among them the abrupt tempo changes that occur throughout the martial-styled “Moving Side” and the cartwheeling vocal-guitar duet that opens the album. But as striking as such moments are, no pieces are more powerful than “Early Years,” a ballad the musicians render with delicacy and feeling, and “Chin Up,” a piece distinguished as much by its memorable melodic writing as the quartet's impassioned delivery.

In contrast to the quartet presentation of the newer material, the six-part It's All Yours pairs Manaf and a ‘regular' group of keyboards, drums, upright bass, and soprano sax/flute with the Balinese ensemble Mahagotra Ganesha. Credited with gangsa, kantil, jublag, gong, and kempluk, the group's five members provide an ear-catching counterpoint to the others' playing, even if Mahagotra Ganesha's playing isn't present at every moment. The eleven-minute opening part establishes a jubilant tone in the uplift of its buoyant, juju-styled swing. Strip away the tinkling metallic accompaniment of Mahagotra Ganesha, however, and you'd be left with a melodic brand of jazz fusion that's undeniably Metheny-esque, especially when Manaf's spirited guitar playing is complemented by wordless vocalizing (on the jazzy fourth part, his guitar playing is so reminiscent of Metheny's, it would likely be identified as such in a blindfold test). Yet as strong as the opening part is, it's bettered by a romantic, ballad-styled second that presents Manaf's playing at its most heartfelt and lyrical. The keyboard playing of Yd Nafis, singing of Zaky, and soprano sax and flute playing of Mumu (especially when the brooding part five places a flute solo at the forefront) also leave memorable impressions.

simakDialog's Live at Orion (the group's seventh release and fourth for MoonJune Records) situates Fender Rhodes player Riza Arshad and electric guitarist Tohpati at the center of the group's fusion-styled storm. Fleshing out the band are bassist Rudy Zulkarnaen and a percussion trio consisting of Endang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana on Sundanese kendang percussion and Cucu Kaurnia on assorted metal percussion. Though Arshad and Tohpati formed the group in 1993, it's the electric pianist who composed all nine of the live set's tracks, which were laid down for posterity on September 7, 2013 at Orion Studios in Baltimore, Maryland. simakDialog's sound offers an arresting melding of Western and Eastern styles: it's clearly rooted in progressive jazz-fusion, on the one hand, with all of the soloing that that entails, but it's also heavily shaped by the Indonesian culture from which the band emerged. With strong ties to the capital of Jakarta, simakDialog's music can't help but reflect a gamelan influence, something literally exemplified by the inclusion of a percussion trio rather than a conventional drummer.

Live at Orion finds the band touring in support of its 2013 studio album, The 6th Story, and working into its set-list material spanning its twenty-plus-year tenure. The double-disc format affords the group ample room to stretch out, which it does on tracks that in every case but one push past the eleven-minute mark (the longest, “This Spirit,” tips the scales at eighteen). It's refreshing to see Arshad giving his full attention to a single keyboard rather than alternating between multiple synthesizers and pianos like so many keyboardists, and his free-wheeling Fender Rhodes playing—so redolent of with the early days of jazz-fusion—exudes a palpable warmth, despite the instrument's metallic timbre. Tohpati complements Arshad's playing perfectly with endless volleys of fluid, precisely articulated lines and textural atmospherics (reminiscent of Alan Holdsworth and David Torn, respectively). As his raw solo during the latter half of “Stepping In” illustrates, Tohpati isn't averse to getting his hands dirty when the need arises, and his repertoire also includes wah-wah, as evidenced by the quasi-psychedelic turns his playing takes on “For Once And Never” and “Disapih.”

The four-man rhythm section provides a constant support to the soloists, with the bassist and percussionists ever attuned to the compositional changes that transpire within a given composition. They solo rarely (an extended spotlight during the closing encore “5,6” the most conspicuous instance), opting instead to be the foundation for the soloistic ventures of Arshad and Tohpati, though there are a few occasions where the spotlight moves from the pianist and guitarist to the others (the group balance briefly shifts during “5,6” when guitarist Beledo, a fellow MoonJune recording artist, joins in for some heavy riffing with Tohpati and Arshad). While not wishing to downplay the contributions of the rhythm section to simakDialog's sound, it's the front-line interplay between Arshad and Tohpati that is the group's essence.

simakDialog wisely modulates the intensity level by leavening aggressive fare with material that's comparatively restrained (e.g., “One Has To Be”). It's worth noting, too, that while simakDialog features the playing of three percussionists, at no time do they overpower the music; instead, the three generate an ever-mutating backdrop that's consistently responsive to the directions collectively pursued. The result is a music that's dense, yes, but also one in which all of the members' contributions resound clearly.

As shown by Kai, its sophomore outing and official MoonJune Records debut, Yagull's acoustic folk sound is wholly unlike simakDialog's jazz-fusion. Led by NYC-based married couple Sasha Markovic (guitar, bass, percussion) and Kana Kamitsubo (piano), Yagull eschews long-form soloing for concise instrumental songs, in this case twelve: eight are new compositions, two are classic rock covers (of Free and Deep Purple songs), and two are updated versions of songs from Yagull's 2012 debut album Films. Theirs is a very pretty music that's easy to embrace, especially when the duo's core acoustic guitar-piano sound is so melodically rich as well as enhanced by the contributions of guests.

Though rather sombre in tone, “North” nevertheless opens the fifty-three-minute album strongly due to its powerful melodic writing and the sensitivity demonstrated by Markovic and Kamitsubo in the song's execution. Both exercise tasteful restraint in their playing, aware that the delicate setting is best served by presenting it with restraint and resisting the urge to overembellish it. The impact of the bluesy ballad “Dark” is bolstered by the presence of violinist Wen Chang and double bassist Yoshiki Yamada, both of who imbue Yagull's material with added depth. A dramatic showcase for Markovic's layered guitar playing and Kamitsubo's classical technique, “Mio” locates us within “House of the Rising Sun” territory, even if it's the lilt of the song's vocal-free melodies that conveys as much. Not all of Yagull's music is so dark: fellow MoonJune artist Dewa Budjana plays electric guitar on “Blossom,” an affectingly harmonious number that exudes joy and uplift in equal measure.

The combination of Chang's violin and Markovic's guitar gives the chamber-styled rendering of Free's “Wishing Well” a powerful boost, though Kamitsubo impresses, too, for her exquisite playing on the song. In addition, Beledo contributes lute to “Burn,” a high-spirited treatment of the Deep Purple tune, while Jackson Kincheloe's harmonica solo cranks up the emotional heat on “Sound of M.” With flutist Lori Reddy aboard, “Z-Parrow” surprisingly points Kai in the direction of prog-rock, albeit briefly. That Kai is an extremely personal project for Markovic and Kamitsubo is signified by the fact that the album title takes its name from the boy who was born to the couple in 2014. The music's heartfelt character, however (nowhere displayed more affectingly than in the title track, which the duo play alone), would communicate itself just as vividly even if one weren't aware of that biographical detail.

February 2015