Japan, by Way of Germany

Eric Shaefer — Kyoto Mon Amour (ACT, 2017)

schaefer-kyotoDropping the virtual needle on Kyoto Mon Amour by German drummer Eric Schaefer, I was expecting a meditative session with vast silences. But “Shoshu-san,” the opening track, breaks from a relaxing intro to get into busy clarinet soloing against koto and tastefully splashed cymbals.

It’s jazz, in other words, but blended with a Japanese sense of contemplation and abstractness. Schaefer’s quartet is fronted by koto and clarinet, both played by Japanese musicians who live in Europe, and his band is rounded out by John Eckhardt’s strong bass work. The results aren’t as edgy as I’d hoped, but it’s a rich blend enjoyable for reasons that go beyond the jazz sound.

On koto, Naoko Kikuchi shows wide range of styles. “Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant” — a 1910 Maurice Ravel composition for kids — conveys a jazz vibe within the first notes of Eckhardt’s bass, followed by traditional Japanese airs in the koto parts. “Tohoku” sounds downright Appalachian, and “Ticket to Osaka” briskly combines a deep bass pulse with lively koto riffing, including a rocking little 6/8 phrase.

Kazutoki Umezu’s clarinet and bass clarinet tap that European cross-current that cuts across jazz and classical styles. A good taste of this comes during the lively, bluesy clarinet solo on “Kansai Two-Face,” an otherwise contemplative track.

As for that zen feeling that I was anticipating, there’s plenty of it on “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” an composition that’s lyrically sad but also includes one of the album’s most “outside” segments. During a freely improvised break, Kikuchi gets downright ragged on the koto, with Umezu eventually adding ghostly moans on clarinet.

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