Nostalgia, in Japanese, lightly translates into natsukashisa, a yearning for something from the past. American born, multi-instrumentalist Kaoru Watanabe has reverted to his ancestral Japan for inspiration on Néo, a synthesis of dignified taiko drumming with the jazz sensibility of improvisation. Prepared with a degree in jazz flute and saxophone performance, Watanabe spent a decade performing and touring with Kodo, the globally recognized taiko drum ensemble, and has contributed to the Silk Road Project. This recording of original compositions, is a culmination of an artistic quest into creative music with shades of natsukashisa.
Taiko drumming can be traced back over 2000 years in Japanese history. It is intrinsically connected with battlefield applications, theatrical productions, as well as religious ceremonies. To achieve any level of expertise in taiko requires dedication to an extensive educational and communal experience, not only for rudimentary practice, but in its spiritual connotations as well. Watanabe mastered these essential elements, and performs taiko from a contemporary perspective.
Commencing with the hayashi (festival ensemble) leanings of "Bloodlines," there is an immediate sense of complexity as the flute improvises over the repetitive drums. The mysterious drama of Noh and Kabuki theater is imagined in "Dreams," as the glossolalia chanting raises the perception level into an illusory dimension of birds and wind. "Prism," with intense nohkan flute phrases, and odd meters, blurs the lines between ancient ritual and the vanguard, while "Chiru," (scattering of cherry blossoms) praises the deconstruction cycle of nature with a definitive folkloric cadence depicted with three taiko drummers.
The trilogy of "Kagura Gurui," separated on the disc, are arranged around a common pulsation simulating the heartbeat. Kagura originates in Shinto celebratory folkdances, and there is a continuous forceful momentum depicted in the pieces. An intricate harmony and rhythmic relationship is evident on "Together Alone," a piece with heightened flute representation. "Iki," brings back the incantations, though upon careful listening, they are multilingual voices of protest saying "I Can't Breathe," as Watanabe joins those raising awareness against grim social injustice. Sumie Kaneko is featured on the shamisen (three stringed lute) on the introduction of "Shinobu," a soothing lullaby with a compassionate yet varied undulation,
Watanabe bids farewell with "One," a solo performance composed for a cathedral recital with dominant Shinto intonations in the opening flute passage, a thunderous entry of the taiko, yielding for the flute, then a dramatic conclusion. Watanabe utilized shinobue bamboo flutes from the classical fue tradition on the recording, allowing tonal variations while maintaining the proper melodic ambiance desired amidst the dominant drumming. Néo is so ethereal that words to describe it skip like a breeze on water. It encompasses time and space from a culture that remains elusive and exotic, yet is audibly accessible in this presentation.
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