This recording was exceptionally challenging to review. Although I’ve been aware of composer/improviser/pianist Glenn Horiuchi for some time, I must confess that this recording is my first opportunity to have actually heard his music. An additional difficulty in reviewing FAIR PLAY exists in the fact that this recording appears to have been a transitional one for Mr. Horiuchi (he writes in the liner notes that FAIR PLAY is structurally “a little freer than my previous Soul Note recordings” and that “there is a sense of space and even theatre, that was new to my work”). A final obstacle in assessing FAIR PLAY is that it was recorded in 1994 but was not released until recently. Thus, it is inappropriate for me to speculate as to whether or not FAIR PLAY can be deemed to be representative of Mr. Horiuchi’s current or previous work. However, it is certainly fair to conclude that Mr. Horiuchi considers this recording pivotal to his career, and directly responsible for initiating subsequent projects.
FAIR PLAY consists of four medium to long tracks (the shortest is 11min48sec, the longest is 20min38sec) which the liner notes refer to as “compositions” but which plainly offer ample opportunity for free improvisation. However, this opportunity does not imply that complete liberty is granted to the musicians in this quartet. On the contrary, it is clear that mood, set, and setting must be abided by. To achieve this balance, there are a number of instances where only one or two members are playing at a given moment (this could be the “sense of space” that Horiuchi refers to).
Musically, Mr. Horiuchi incorporates both Asian instruments (shamisen and bamboo flute) and elements. The goal would appear to be the establishment of a legitimate Asian-American improvisational identity (i.e., this isn’t simply “Western jazz” played on “Eastern instruments”). In my opinion, this is an area that Mr. Horiuchi succeeds at. The best description, vague though it might well be, is to use the Midwestern American definition of the adjective “different”, i.e., implying uniqueness (via both “singularity” and “oddity”), and the consequent difficulty in precisely articulating whether or not one find the experience “enjoyable” (“different” is a word Midwesterners use when attempting to be polite upon being queried to describe something they didn’t enjoy. Paradoxically, this is similar to customary Japanese politeness under similar circumstance).
This “differentness” (sorry) results in a set of tracks that authentically possess drama. This is effectively realized on the opening (title) track and the closer ,“Manzanar Voices (Part 2)”. In each composition, Mr. Horiuchi’s draws inspiration from a deeply inseparable personal and cultural matter, the internment of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during the Second World War. The tone is reflective and bordering on stream of consciousness as Horiuchi aurally translates both his own impressions of pilgrimage to Manzanar and his meeting with those who were once imprisoned there.
The most profoundly and unusually thought provoking track is the second piece, “Angel Tears” written in memoriam to Mr. Horiuchi’s cousin, a victim of AIDS. Although anger and despair make momentary appearances, the overall mood is more speculative and meditative than mournful. The impression is of a small, closely knit group of friends and family reminiscing over their fallen friend/relative, paging through a scrapbook of photos, sharing fond memories, and wondering what his life might have become and where it might have gone. The tears that are shed urge remembrance and compassion instead of bitterness and hopelessness. Mr. Horiuchi and longtime friend and collaborator Francis Wong eschew their usual instruments (piano and saxophone respectively) on this track, Horiuchi relying on the shamisen to convey his thoughts and feelings while Mr. Wong contributes sensitive passages on violin. Special mention must be made of William Roper (tuba) and Jeannette Wrate (percussion) for their dignified contributions to this track.
But lest the reader think this disc to be an entirely weighty and solemn affair, the third and longest track, “Wet Tap” provides welcome comic relief. Humorous, but not silly, the piece is an aural documentary of life on the job as a construction worker in the San Diego Water Utilities Dept. (where Mr. Horiuchi has been employed). The track is surprisingly and vividly visual, one can easily picture operating a jackhammer, driving a dump truck, repairing sewer pipes, and digging trenches on a hot, dry day. The title takes it’s inspiration from Mr. Horiuchi’s favorite task, the “wet tap” which involves drilling into a live water main.
In conclusion, FAIR PLAY might not be the best recording for a listener to become acquainted with Glenn Horiuchi’s music. However, this fascinating disc does make this reviewer curious to hear more from Mr. Horiuchi. Truly unique and especially recommended to the free jazz fan who thinks that no new ground is being broken.
Glenn Horiuchi Unit (A) is:
Glenn Horiuchi – piano, shamisen, bamboo flute, voice
Francis Wong – tenor sax, violin, bamboo flute, voice
Jeanette Wrate – percussion, voice
William Roper – tuba, voice