Masuo: Life Is Good (2008)
Japanese-born/New York-based Yoshiaki Masuo is a professional and accomplished guitarist. He is not a particularly accomplished vocalist, but still chooses to sing on six of Life is Good's eleven tracks. Therein lies the potential pitfall of a self-produced album such as this. There's nobody behind the controls to suggest to Masuo that it might be better to play to his strengths and try to minimize his weaknesses.
The recording quality is not first rate with a sound that comes across as thin at times, with instruments appearing tinny and the vocals washed out. This is somewhat surprising as Masuo is no stranger to the studio, being a veteran musician in bands with artists including saxophonists Sadao Watanabe and Sonny Rollins, and drummer Elvin Jones.
It's one thing to take on Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird," with Masuo's limited vocal range just adequate enough to clear the hurdle. But it's a mistake to attempt a strutting "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" from The Rolling Stones. Masuo simply lacks the edgy attitude to cover such an established rock n' roll standard with convincing credibility.
Life Is Good works best when Masuo is on guitar, with able assistance from featured guests Larry Goldings (organ) and Lenny White (drums). The trio has history, as they first performed together on Masuo's Are You Happy Now (Omagatoki, 1988). That familiarity serves them well on the original "On Greene Street" and Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica."
Ultimately, how Life Is Good plays out is that the original selections work better than the covers, the instrumentals better than the vocal tracks and the smaller band settings better than the larger ensembles.
This is an inconsistent album due to the fact that Masuo's vocal skills don't measure up to his instrumental abilities and some choices in material seem curious. A fixture on the Japan jazz scene, his success in the U.S. however may lie in trimming back his singing, enlisting an outside producer and placing greater emphasis on his savvy guitar playing.
Track Listing: Life is Good; Wet Dog; Run Away (Winter Santa); The Tree; Yoh; On Greene Street; Pannonica; Blackbird; (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; Another Christmas Song; Gondola no Uta (The Gondola Song).
Personnel: Yoshiaki Masuo: guitars, vocals, keyboard, percussion; Noriatsu Naraoka: bass; Tony Clinton Jr.: drums; Shirley Masuo: background vocals, percussion; Larry Goldings: organ (2-10) ; Lenny White: drums (2, 5-10); Kip Reed: electric bass; Kazuo Yoshida: drums, percussion; Steve Sacks: alto flute, string arrangement; The 2 Lips: background vocals; Bill Mays: piano (4); Yoshio "Chin" Suzuki: bass; T.M. Stevens: electric bass (5, 9); Nathanial Townsley: drums (5); Ted Nash: flutes (5); Marcus Printup: flugelhorn (5); Mark Soskin: keyboard (5); Sali Oguri: background vocals (5); Gayle Oshiro: background vocals (5).