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Sokif: Affectionate Unselfish

I'll confess that I was caught rather off guard by this disarmingly lovely collection by the Tokyo, Japan-based composer Sokif. Every time a release fills my listening space for the first time, I listen with the hope that it'll be at the very least half-decent, but on the rare occasion a recording shows itself to be arresting in the best way possible, and Affectionate Unselfish is one such collection.

Apparently Sokif's previous albums (issued on the Revirth label) were beat-oriented affairs, but this latest one on Plop is a different animal altogether, one designed to emphasize his composer persona and training as a classical pianist. The fifty-minute album is no solo project, however, and, even though all nine pieces were written by Sokif, the positive impression made by Affectionate Unselfish is in part attributable to the contributions made by his guests: four female vocalists (Calu [Matryoshka], Eriko Kuribayashi, Kana Otsubo [Spangle called Lilli Line], Jo Mango), two alto sax players (Satoru Takahashi, Koji Nakamura), and a violoncellist (Robin Dupuy). Their contributions are spread across the album, with the singers appearing on different songs (Calu on five of them) and the saxes featured on the one vocal-less piece; Sokif, of course, plays piano throughout.

“The Butterfly Flies Over a Cloud” immediately catches one's ear with its motorik piano patterns and sparkling aura, but as the song develops, one's attention gradually shifts from the Reich-flavoured piano playing to the angelic vocal swirl generated by Calu's multi-layered voice. Enhanced by a near-subliminal electronic presence, the song's elements come together to form an hypnotic mass of repeating motifs that one could imagine carrying on for a full-hour in the tradition of Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But Sokif brings the breathless song to an end before it reaches the six-minute mark to make way for the gentle lullaby “Toward the Streamer,” six heavenly minutes of delicate vocal expressions, stately piano melodies, and glistening electronics. Subsequent songs likewise gravitate towards the slower end of the tempo spectrum, but not objectionably.

Sokif deviates from the album's vocal template to let the saxes take over during “The Eyes Which Were Closed.” The move proves especially well-considered given how much conviction Takahashi and Nakamura bring to their playing on the piece, and the emotive wail of their saxes proves to be as affecting as the vocal performances do elsewhere. One final change-up occurs when Mango sings actual lyrics during the wistful closer “Sail,” in contrast to the other vocal songs, all of which feature wordless singing.

I could imagine a jaded listener dismissing Sokif's music for being too pretty and verging on saccharine. But one would have to be deaf not to hear the beauty in the album's lilting title track, for instance, when Calu's soft murmur appears alongside the graceful melodies of the violoncello and piano. To these ears, Affectionate Unselfish is a breath of fresh air and a collection of genuine feeling and beauty.

February 2014