The shakuhachi has had a troubled existence. In its native Japan, its use has been outlawed and the ability to play it has been used as a way for a traveler to prove he was a visiting monk and not a spy. In more recent times, it has been adapted into the ethnic consciousness of jazz, but with some exceptions (notably Ned Rothenberg) it has been used in the hackneyed ritual-before-the-jam mode.
Whether or not it's time for a shakuhachi repertory band is arguable, but either way Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie seems an unlikely candidate to lead the venture. Here he is, however, with a quintet and a convincing set of standards and originals, treating the five-holed wooden Japanese flute as if it were just one of the guys.
The shakuhachi would seem a difficult instrument to playin the wrong hands it can be annoyingly imprecise, in any event. But Ritchie plays well and given the choice of material he isn't bashful about demonstrating as much. The 11-song set includes Coltrane's "Living Space" and Albert Ayler's "Change Has Come," and while it wouldn't be fair to put the little flute up against the big tenor saxophones, Ritchie does an admirable job. He also tackles the emotion-laden blues standard "Motherless Children," a nice choice for the emotive power of the instrument.
The club members are an impressive and unusual lot, with Television drummer Billy Ficca and avant banjo phenom Tony Trischka defining much of the band's sound. Multi-instrumentalist John Kruth, who has played with the Femmes as well as The Velvet Underground's John Cale and The Band's Garth Hudson and authored Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk , sticks to mandolin here. With such instrumentation, and Dan Nosheny on tuba, the band has an early jazz feel that they rely on a bit much for the original pieces (all of which were penned by Ritchie). Still, the band overcomes what could have been a novelty and deliver a solid set of songs.
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Personnel: Tony Trischka: Banjo;
Brian Ritchie: Shakuhachi;
John Kruth: Mandolin;
Billy Ficca: Wood, Metal Percussion.