Put preconceptions aside and cast no nasturtiums. Against expectations, the free(ish) jazz / electro mash-up Plastic Bamboo is a winner, convincingly bringing together the unpredictability of the one with the robotic iterations of the other. The album collects eleven pieces written or co-written by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a founder member of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978 and composer of soundtracks for hit movies including Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Sheltering Sky (1990) and The Revenant (2015). Sakamoto wrote great tunes and the album refracts them without rendering them unrecognizable, through a six-piece French band comprising flautist Delphine Joussein, tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Hugues Mayot, pianist Manuel Peskine, cellist Clément petit, synths and drum machine specialist Frederic Soulard and drummer Vincent Taeger.
Plastic Bamboo makes a strong bid for the attention of anyone who ever enjoyed early 1980s electro-funk, in particular the artists then being championed by New York's Tommy Boy Records, and/or who enjoys the melodious end of the free-jazz spectrum as performed by Billy Bang and Frank Lowe's The Jazz Doctors or Pharoah Sanders with Alice Coltrane.
Sakamoto passed in March 2023, but Asynchrone had begun exploring his music back in 2020, recording Plastic Bamboo in February 2023; the album was conceived as a loving but not overly reverential celebration of a living composer. Mayot is the most prominent soloist, on vocalized post-Sanders tenor on five tracks and on bass clarinet, again vocalized, on two more: "Ubi" (see the video below) and the closer, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." Peskine plays by turn expansive and prettily delicate piano. Significantly, it is those three instruments which most stick in the mind, for one of the several beautiful aspects of Plastic Bamboo is that electronica does not elbow its way centrestage and hog the spotlight, even though Soulard's synths and drum machines are a core feature of the sound.
Is Plastic Bamboo jazz? Yes. And no. But it begs to be played again rightaway.
Plastic Bamboo; Expecting Rivers; Neue Tanz; Thatness And Thereness; Differencia; Behind The Mask; Boku No Kakera; Riot In Lagos; Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.
You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.
Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.