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Koto's Song: A Review of the Murasaki Ensemble

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The koto's timbre. . .gives the music an ethereal air, quite fitting since the koto was an ancient instrument identified with the voice of the spirit in medieval times
My wife and I are sitting in Yoshi’s, the Bay area’s premier jazz club, seeing an array of instruments looking wildly out of place on any jazz club’s stage. Our vision sweeps across three Japanese kotos, a traditional form of zither, several Middle-Eastern drums, an array of wooden and metal flutes, and a classical guitar. Only an upright bass seems a concession to convention.

The five members of the Murasaki Ensemble proceed to work their alchemy with this exotic instrumentation, as they have for the past fifteen years. Based in the Bay area, the group has rarely performed to a wider audience – but tonight’s performance suggests that they have achieved a level of rare musical creativity that would win discerning audiences anywhere.

The group’s leader, koto player Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, is oddly not the only performer to adopt the traditional Japanese zither to jazz. Miya Masaoka, also hailing from the Bay area, is a like innovator, though Masaoka’s musical focus transcends jazz, tends toward the far reaches of avant-garde experimentation, and is heavily centered upon electronic music. And Masaoka has not led a regular band that has worked together for over a decade. Shirley Muramoto is the only musician I know who has worked to integrate the koto as a major solo voice within an established acoustic jazz band format.

The band’s opening number was a sprawling improvisation hinting at a blues theme, a blues tone underscored by Muramoto fretting the seventeen strings of her koto by rubbing a water glass over them. Percussionist Vince Delgado established a riveting 9/4 time signature on Middle-Eastern drums while bassist Alex Baum played daring and darting bass lines counterpointing Muramoto’s koto sounding like a bottlenecked banjo. Guitarist Jeff Masanari played lovely filigrees on his nylon stringed guitar that complemented the koto and bass lines gracefully. And Matt Eakle on flute sounded like a reincarnation of Roland Kirk, playing heavily vocalized, stabbing, dramatic flute flights.

The next number seemed to be Japanese variation on “Moanin’” by Bobby Timmons, a soulful blues composed of twanging koto, lyrical guitar, unsettling, unexpected drum rhythms, and a bubbly flute.

The incorporation of traditional Japanese musical ideas in jazz is not new. Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington both composed jazz tunes based upon their Japanese tour experiences. And in the past two decades, Bay area based jazz musicians like Mark Izu and Jon Jang have forged a unique Asian-American school of jazz, though one still little recognized beyond California. But the Murasaki Ensemble is creating a unique fusion of jazz and Japanese music using the koto as the centerpiece of the band’s sound. The koto’s timbre – recalling medieval lute, harp, mandolin, or banjo – gives the ensemble’s music an ethereal air, quite fitting since the koto was an ancient instrument identified with the voice of the spirits in medieval times.

Shirley’s Muramoto’s teenage son Brian interrupted my reverie on Japanese themes in jazz history by playing a powerful duet with his mother, a traditional Japanese tune without jazz overtones, composed ages ago by women washing their laundry by a river by pounding their clothes on rocks. Koto notes evoked waves beating against shorelines while the rest of the band took a well deserved break offstage.

The show concluded with the title tune on the group’s most recent CD, Birds & Drums. There were moments when each of the five musicians seemed to tell a folk tale through their improvised solos, a tale about birds and humans exchanging identities in the blink of an eye. This was cross-cultural jazz refined and performed with grace and enthusiasm.

The CDs available by the group, while highly enjoyable, give only a taste of the expansive imagination and passion their concert appearance revealed. They have my vote as the jazz group most deserving wider recognition. I’ve seen one facet of the future of jazz – and it draws radiance from a rising sun in the East.

Visit the Murasaki Ensemble on the web at www.murasakiensemble.com .

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