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Meg Okura: Naima

Dan McClenaghan By

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Naima is the name of one of saxophonist John Coltrane's more famous compositions. It's also the name of Japanese violinist Meg Okura's CD release. Joined by her nine-piece Pan Asian Jazz Ensemble, Okura has honed a finely-crafted set of chamber jazz, with all players being equals, and all players getting their chances to play the melody, and to improvise.

Coltrane might seem an unlikely vehicle for a string player, if you haven't heard the Turtle Island String Quartet dig very successfully into "A Love Supreme" on the 2004 Telarc Records CD of the same name. Naima opens with the title tune, and Okura employs two flutes, a cello and piano/bass/drums jazz rhythm section for an airy and luminous take on the jazz classic. Okura's violin has a sharply yearning tone, and the ensemble lends a classical mood that leans distinctly Eastward.

The rest of the set showcases Okura's writing, which is complex and airy and bright, a very technically adept jazz/classical mixture. "Afrasia" melds African and Asia influences, with the lilting Asian motifs floating over darker, more ominous themes.

Precision and technical virtuosity prevail, married to pulse and drive and energy. Okura's four part, thirty minute "Lu Chai Suite" is the highlight of the set. It was underwritten by the American Composers Forum and was inspired by Wang Wei, a poet from the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Part one, "Empty Mountain" is written in the style of the American folk song, with the Okura playing the Chinese instrument, the erhu, a two string violin, lending an Asian tint to the tune.

Part Two, "Echo of Voices" has hard driving, funky sections interspersed with delicate, lighter than air beauty. Inspired by kan-shi, the Japanese version of Chinese poetry, the tune features the different instruments playing different figures in various rhythmic groupings.

Part Four, "Sunlight," has a fittingly bright feeling, with the ensemble sounding larger and lusher than expected, with its classical influence in the forefront.

"Green Moss," the last part of the suite, is a hymn for eternal peace between the Chinese and Japanese. It closes an exotic East/West chamber jazz set on a note of gorgeous tranquility.

Track Listing: Naima; Hannah's Vocalese; Caprice; Afrasia, San San Nana Byoshi; Lu Chai I: Empty Mountain; Lu Chai II: Echo of Voices; Lu Chai III: Sunlight; Lu Chai IV: Green Moss.

Personnel: Meg Okura: violin, erhu; Anne Drummond: flute; Jun Kubo: shinobue, flute; Rubin Kodheli: cello; Mamiko Kitaura: piano; Jennifer Vincent: bass; Willard Dyson: drums; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion; Dave Eggar: cello (5).

Title: Naima | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Self Produced

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