Kojiro Umezaki: (Cycles)
In A Circle Records

(Cycles) is obviously noteworthy as a showcase for Kojiro Umezaki's shakuhachi virtuosity, but his playing isn't the only striking thing about the forty-seven-minute release. There is in addition the recording's diversity, the fact that each one of its six settings adds something different and unusual to the package. Though the Silk Road Ensemble member's primary instrument is the shakuhachi, Umezaki (who's also Assistant Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine) shows himself on the recording to be someone well-versed in the use of electronics, too.

While two of the pieces present Umezaki alone, the others feature contributions by Dong-Won Kim (janggo), Faraz Minooei (santur), Joseph Gramley (vibraphone, percussion), and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The recording's common thread is, of course, the shakuhachi, a Japanese vertical bamboo flute of immense dynamic range that's been a part of Japanese Zen Buddhist meditation since the 15th century and whose distinctive wooden flute-like sound makes it easy to identify. The album is no standard World Music recording either, with (Cycles) delving into post-modern collage, electroacoustic music, and classical composition, too.

The opening piece, “(Cycles) America,” testifies to the bold nature of the album project. Reminiscent of Charles Ives in style, the setting merges scratchy samples (taken from an Edison gramophone recording) of Walt Whitman reading from Leaves of Grass (the “America” section) and Umezaki's electronic treatments of ocean waves sounds with a section borrowed from Dvorák's From the New World Symphony (voiced by Gramley's vibes). Later in the recording, “…seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened…,” its title excerpted from a statement recorded in a 2011 article in The New York Times in reference to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan, documents the dramatic ways Umezaki applies electronic treatments to his shakuhachi playing, with multi-layers of looping patterns acting as a backdrop to his soloing.

Dramatic timbral contrast can't help but be achieved within “(Cycles) what falls must rise” (originally released on Brooklyn Rider's Dominant Curve) when the shakuhachi is paired with string quartet. At thirteen minutes, the closing piece is the album's longest, but that simply means ample opportunity is available to enjoy the playing of one of our favourite string quartets. The material achieves a successful balance between the two parties, with Umezaki and Brooklyn Rider equally well-accounted for in a passionate and somewhat gypsy-styled section that emerges midway through as well as in meditative passages that arise elsewhere.

The twelve-minute, Silk Road-styled setting “108: for shakuhachi, janggo, santur, and manjira” augments the shakuhachi with Minooei's santur, its sound so suggestive of mystery and intrigue, and Kim's janggo, an hourglass-shaped drum whose two leather heads are struck with mallets. It's pieces such as this one (especially when it alternates between slow, ponderous passages and uptempo ones that accelerate rapidly) and the shorter traditional setting that follows, “Lullaby from Itsuki,” that allow the full range of Umezaki's expressive playing style to be appreciated on this superb collection.

June 2014