Sounds of the mystical Orient and the more assertive Western world clash head-on when the Natto Quartet ignites. Philip Gelb, an extremely versatile and resourceful shakuhachi player, and Shoko Hikage, an astute proponent of the ancient koto, contribute the Eastern sensibilities that flow well beyond the cultural borders of their instruments’ roots. On the Western front, pianist Chris Brown and electronics specialist Tim Perkis provide the 21st century impetus to sustain the transformation. Together, the California-based quartet becomes an exploratory team intent on establishing a new world order where improvised creativity is the sole determinant of beauty, even if that beauty is in its earthiest form.
Each artist plays a distinctive role in forming this free collective. Gelb’s shakuhachi arsenal consists of instruments of varying lengths that alter the pitch and cover a wide tonal range. He shows absolute dominance over the difficult reeds. Gelb has taken the shakuhachi out of the meditative field and has plunked it squarely into the improvising arena, where his originality is continually on display. Brown takes a fully unstructured approach to his reconnaissance mission. His approach from inside and outside the piano combines aggressiveness with thought-provoking development of logical freeform sequences. Brown’s playing erupts with physicality, although his forcefulness is always under control and able to be abated at will.
Tim Perkis is a wizard on the electronic controls. He bends and twists tonal centers while always maintaining a musical stance devoid of sheer noise or static elements. This inventiveness in sound production makes him an exceptional contributor to this group. Hikage blends spirits of the past into this strongly flavored brew. Her blunt, interruptive statements reverberate and rebound against the reams of chilling improvisations encircling her. She straddles dual cultures with aplomb and makes her instrument sing out emphatically.
While collective interaction is at the heart of the music, the performers also spin off in engaging partnerships, which in turn inspire spontaneous contributions from the others. For example, Gelb spars gingerly with Hikage, encouraging Perkis to enter wrapping electronic impulses around the stark but strangely soothing output. Brown listens intently and interjects jabbing comments for emphasis. And so it goes throughout the recording, with each dual encounter leading to profound group interpretation. Instruments that are centuries apart in origin and light years apart in concept find a common ground for promoting unity. The Natto Quartet effectively marries these divergent influences, producing music for our time.