Any new release from Gato Libre is a welcome event and sure to be a transcendent musical journey of simple sophistication in an unconventional structure. Neko
is all those things but with the added, palpable emotion driven by a sense of loss that the group has endured yet again. Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura
and life partner, pianist, and accordionist Satoko Fujii
have been the mainstays of the groups since its 2005 debut, Strange Village
(Muzak Inc). The original quartet included bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu and guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura, both of whom passed away, in 2011 and 2015 respectively. In each case, Tamura questioned continuing the group and thankfully did so.
Trombonist Yasuko Kaneko first appeared on Gato Libre's DuDu
(Libra Records, 2014) after playing some live performances with the group. A natural fit from the beginning, he filled the gap left by the absence of Koreyasu's bass. Following the loss of Tsumura, and with urging from Fujii, Tamura made the decision that Gato Libre continue functioning, now as a trio, for Neko
Tamura wrote each of the album's six pieces and for both the trumpeter and Fujii, the choice of material is most often an alter-ego to the couple's other endeavorstheir free improvisational group Kaze (with drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost), and their boundary pushing piano/trumpet duo recordings. "Tama" is imbued with the folkloric themes that have been the trademark of much Gato Libre's music. "Momo" sets up and retains a slow, understated melody, the melancholy occasionally lifted by Fujii's accordion (she does not play piano with Gato Libre). "Mii" and "Hime" see Tamura alternating between his most expressive playing and more abstract techniques. One of Gato Libre's most moving pieces is "Yuza," featuring a series of extended solosfirst from Tamura, then Fujii and, finally, Kanekowith all coming together for its solemn conclusion. "Tora" concludes the set with off-kilter lyricism and an underlying sense of sorrow.
The emotional trials that Tamura and Fujii have endured are on full display here, neither glossed over nor sentimentalized. The sad beauty of the album plays out in a cinematic manner, reflective and yet charismatic enough to reflect the old world charm that Fujii's accordion frequently lends to Gato Libre's music. Not surprisingly, Neko
translates to "Cat," and one would hope that this group has at least nine more lives to share with us.