Miles Okazaki: Trickster
Pi Recordings

Guitarist Miles Okazaki draws upon a number of inspirations for his fourth album, Trickster, but one in particular seems especially relevant to its style: the Japanese art of origami. The geometrical precision with which the paper forms into a shape from a single uncut square of paper is mirrored in the logical structures of the album's intricate compositions. According to Okazaki, they're all rooted in simple shapes, be it twelve or sixteen bars and 4/4 or 3/4, but that fact “is largely disguised by various rhythmic illusions and internal ‘folds' within the form.”

Another key inspiration is intimated by the title, which alludes to Lewis Hyde's book Trickster Makes This World. In describing this ancient archetypal figure as a creative force who uses “mischief and magic to disrupt the state of things” and who exists “outside of the mainstream, working from the margins, creating movement across the borders,” Okazaki would obviously seem to be describing himself as much as a folklore entity. Certainly there is no shortage of melodic and rhythmic twists and turns in the nine pieces on the album, and Vijay Iyer's description of Okazaki's second album, 2009's Generations, as “the sonic equivalent of Escher or Borges” could be said to apply here also. Track titles, too, are consistent with the album concept, as illustrated by “Eating Earth,” which describes Krishna's mother peering inside his mouth after he's been accused of eating dirt only to discover the entire universe inside.

Musically, it's hard not to detect echoes of Steve Coleman in the material, which is only natural considering that Okazaki's been a member of the saxophonist's Five Elements outfit for the last eight years; certainly Coleman's compositional vision is so strong it can't help but seep into the sensibilities of those around him. Said echoes resonate even more powerfully when Five Elements' bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman play on the album, a move that only enhances the telepathic quality of the musicians' interactions. Not to be overlooked are the contributions of renowned pianist Craig Taborn, who goes toe-to-toe with the guitarist throughout.

Okazaki's sound is distortion-free and by guitar standards restrained in its attack, but the music doesn't suffer as a result; if anything, a better sense of balance is achieved when the playing of all four is clearly audible at any given time. There are many pleasures to be had: the imaginative soloing by the guitarist (his extended, flurries-rich turn on “The Calendar” a dazzling display of dexterity and invention) and pianist, and the slippery rhythmning of the bassist and drummer; the way Okazaki's compositional structures seem to both open up and fold in over the course of a track; and the feeling of fluid movement that arises despite the relatively modest track times. Things happen at different speeds, from the relaxed slink of “Eating Earth” to the ferocious forward momentum of “The West.”

Being advanced music grounded in improvisation and interplay, Trickster does qualify as jazz, though its connections to jazz as traditionally understood are tangential at best. The album's rhythms are more rooted in funk, R&B, and hip-hop than jazz swing—though the music does swing for all that, albeit in a slinky, subversive way rarely heard in traditional jazz circles. Particularly impressive is the way Rickman executes multiple rhythms simultaneously without sacrificing in any way the music's flow, “Eating Earth” an especially good example of the approach; impressive, too, is the harmolodic level the four comfortably operate at in maintaining connections with the others while also playing independently. Though each might seem to be voicing something unrelated and in a different time signature, the elements still align cohesively. It's also a rare moment when all four aren't contributing, yet never does the playing feel overcrowded or unfocused.

March 2017