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Akira Sakata and the Ghost of Albert Ayler


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For so very long, since Albert Ayler's death in 1970, the faithful have been, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, "hiding 'neath their covers, studying their pain...wasting their summers, praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets."

And for the last 40 years, Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata has been a hero, and that's understood. His music has allowed listeners to, indeed, case the promised land.

Western audiences may have first noticed him playing in 1986 with Last Exit, the jazz/rock/noise/improv band that featured the fire-breathing saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock. The drummer and bassist in Last Exit were Ronald Shannon Jackson and Bill Laswell, with whom Sakata would later go on to form a trio. He can also be heard, this century, playing with DJ Krush.

Saxophonists Brotzmann, Joe McPhee, and David Murray, all have betrayed evidence of the Ayler influence throughout their careers. So has Sakata, playing with a purity and somewhat spiritual innocence in his quest for pure sound. Like the above mentioned musicians, Sakata's freedom is made possible because he is a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner who can carve sounds in a painterly manner or splash noise with a Jackson Pollock sense of control.

His recent reemergence has come thanks to guitarist/producer Jim O'Rourke, who has worked with everyone from Derek Bailey to Sonic Youth and Wilco. These two releases continue the brilliance that was heard on Friendly Pants (Family Vineyard, 2009).

Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi

Live At Hungry Brain

Family Vineyard Records 2011

In 2005, Sakata began working with the duo of drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Darin Gray, aka Chikamorachi. This trio has toured and built a dialogue that achieves an all too rare amalgam of pure improvisation, rhythmic propulsion and sonic poetry.

Live At Hungry Brain, recorded during the 2009 Umbrella Music Festival in Chicago, is available as a vinyl LP (and digital download) in a limited edition of just 700 copies. Its three tracks begin, appropriately enough, with the 18-minute "Friendly Pants," the consummate Ayler tribute. Burning from the drop of the needle, Sakata has the perfect partners here. Corsano, who is probably best known as saxophonist Paul Flaherty's duo partner, and bassist Gray (Loren MazzaCane Connors), elevate the room. Sakata, who can still deliver a blistering attack even though he is in his mid-sixties, requires collaborators who can raise the tent poles high enough for his fierce display. Here, Corsano packs an energized flow with Gray forcing the river of sound through wide expanses and tight rapids of nearly chaotic energy.

The mood doesn't flag when Sakata switches to clarinet for "Miwataseba (Look Around Look?)." The trio's outward energies turn inward, focusing on pocket-size music making. Corsano trades sticks for brushes and Gray favors his bow here. Sakata opts for melody over muscle. The elegance ends with Sakata first whispering then shouting some poetry. The set finishes with "Wild Chickens In The Lake M," that opens with nearly five minutes of bowed and plucked bass and processional drums, and builds an energy field as a preamble to the saxophonist who proceeds to deliver another barrage of sound. The trio has the constructive sense to fashion a pause from its energy jazz for the saxophonist to solo, exposing an uncontaminated and abstract sound that qualifies as a pure mantra.

Akira Sakata & Jim O'Rourke with Chikamorachi

And That's The Story Of Jazz...

Family Vineyard Records 2011

Adding guitarist Jim O'Rourke to the mix of saxophonist Sakata and the duo Chikamorachi (Corsano and Gray) is like trying to quench a fire with an equally volatile accelerant. That could be the endgame here on these two discs recorded on a 2008 Japanese tour, but it is, of course, so much more.

Disc one opens with the longest track "Kyoto," clocking in at more than 28 minutes. Sakata's solo saxophone invocation calls in rubbed strings and bowed bass, plenty of time to settle into the journey. As the track builds, each player flexes their musical muscle. Corsano, perhaps the modern Rashied Ali, and Gray maintain the musical body here, applying the heartbeat and electrostatic force that draws the music together. O'Rourke appears to delight in pushing and being pushed to noisier and more intense heights. Where this music succeeds as theatre and perhaps song, is in the juxtaposition and contrast of the noisier parts with the quieter solos that emerge before being once again swallowed by the waves of energy.

Corsano opens "Hanamaki," with a cacophony of noise that calls the others to follow his ferocity with their own fury. Sakata works the upper registers and O'Rourke the shredded guitar. This battle is not unlike that of Brotzmann or David S. Ware, but then, suddenly, the energy quells and a sound flowers: it's Sakata unfurling a banner of tender emotions through chamber-like passages and spoken poetry. His beautiful canvas is unfurled onto this battlefield and the contrasts are poignant. O'Rourke, who knows something of contrasts follows, delivering the finer points within the energized rush of the onslaught.

Disc two is culled from the band's performances in Nagoya, and its three tracks feature more of O'Rourke's guitar. The band plays with a savagery that appeals like boxing, except the punches are musical. Even so, the rounds can be exhausting.

Tracks and Personnel

Live At HungryBrain

Tracks: Friendly Pants; Miwataseba (Look Around Look?); Wild Chickens In The Lake M.

Personnel: Akira Sakata: alto saxophone, clarinet, voice; Chris Corsano: drums; Darin Gray: double bass.

And That's The Story Of Jazz...

Tracks: CD1: Kyoto; Hanamaki. CD2: Nagoya 1; Nagoya 2; Nagoya 3.

Personnel: Akira Sakata: alto saxophone, vocals; Jim O'Rourke: guitar, harmonica, electronics; Chris Corsano: drums; Darin Gray: double bass, percussion, bells.

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