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The Rich Musical Vision of Japanese Double Bass Player Tetsu Saitoh


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Japanese double bass master Tetsu Saitoh is one of the most original players of the bull fiddle. He is a resourceful and inventive free improviser but also feels at home when is playing Argentine tango, Brazilian music, Korean shaman music, obviously jazz or collaborating with poets, painters, dancers or theatre groups. All enrich his musical world and solidify his belief about the power of music.

For Saitoh music is about believing. As he explains: "believe in humanity, music, words and love. Music is not the end result, nor self-expression, but the questions we direct inwards—music is beyond individuals." The following recent albums and DVD's suggest how diverse, encompassing and colorful is Saitoh musical world and artistic vision.

Testsu Saitoh & Naoki Kita
Mei -Duo Improvisation Live at Kid Ailack Art Hall

Violinist Naoki Kita is one of the closest collaborators of Saitoh in the last decade and it is quite obvious why. Like Saitoh, Kita's diverse musical spectrum and natural versatility enrich his own and his musical partners vocabularies. He is classically trained; lived in Argentina where he studied the nuevo-tango with violinist of Astor Piazzolla's band; well-versed in the legacy of jazz, including in its most free terrains; and is an excellent, resourceful improviser.
The duo—titled as Mei (bright in Japanese)—was recorded live in Tokyo and it solidifies the telepathic interplay of Saitoh and Kita. The two sound as a much bigger unit than just a double bass and violin and often they extend and expand each other's ideas in such a fast and organic manner that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish which instrument sound it is.

On the two extended improvisations Saitoh and Kita never settle for the obvious. They always enjoy the tension, chaos, drama, playfulness and excitement of exploring new textures and sounds. Both employ an array of extended techniques, but only to expand and enrich their sonic options that deepen these intense, poetic pieces.

Simply fantastic. a profound demonstration of the art of the improvised duo.

Uta wo Sagashite
Live at Pole Pole Za

Uta wo Sagashite (Looking for Songs in Japanese) is the duo of Saitoh, Kita and vocalist Junko Satoh, that already released a previous set of songs, Mugasariuta (Marmelo, 2011). Saitoh wrote this set of songs after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (known also as the 3.11 earthquake), that caused the meltdown of three reactors in Fukushima nuclear plant and almost 16,000 deaths. The trio was recorded live in Tokyo in November 30, 2011, only seven months after the tragic earthquake and tsunami.

The lyrics for the first eight songs were inspired by scenes from the films of the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos—Eternity and a Day, The Weeping Meadow and Landscape in the Mist (whose original soundtracks were composed by Eleni Karaindrou and released by ECM, 1998, 2004 and 2005). The program is concluded with an old Spanish Gregorian chant, a prayer by underground Japanese Christians, an adoation of a poem by Buddhist poet Kenji Miyazawa and a poem by calligraphy artist Chie Inui.

This set of chamber, poetic songs—all sung in Japanese—is delivered beautifully by Satoh. Her warm, operatic voice is full of emotion and her delivery is always elegant and commanding. She charges these melancholic stories-songs with fragile innocence and gentleness, humble reverence and dramatic tension. Saitoh and Kita frame Satoh's emotional storytelling of the desolate landscapes often captured in Angelopoulos films and spiritual texts with modest, reserved form of interplay, still with a bigger sound of just two string instrument, with occasional outburst of fiery playfulness, but always let her take lead role.

Inspiring and touching.

Barre Phillips & Bass Ensemble Gen311
Barre Phillips & Bass Ensemble Gen311

Saitoh and American, France-based double-bass master Barre Phillips collaborated a few times before, most notably in the the double bass quartet homage to the late Peter Kowald, After You Gone (Victo, 2004, together with Joëlle Léandre and William Parker). This recent collaboration features Saitoh's double bass quintet Ensemble GEN311 (captured beautifully on the DVD Strings & the Moon, Kadima Collective, 2012) of his close disciples—Masao Tajima, Takashi Seo, Kazuhiro Tanabe & Pearl Alexander—all come from different backgrounds—classical, jazz, tango and contemporary music.

The six double bass ensemble was recorded on the end of Phillips' tour in Japan in 2012, organized by Saitoh who thought it may be Phillips' last visit in Japan, due to his age at the time of the tour, 78 years old. Saitoh felt indebted to Phillips who invited him to tour in Europe. The two even share the same birthday date, though Phillips is 21 years older than Saitoh, and the album was recorded ten days before their birthdays. So for Saitoh, this live concert was a way of a "thank you" for the inspiration and the role-model of Phillips and showing Phillips that his seminal work is being carried on and enhanced by a younger generation.

The expanded ensemble has a rich and nuanced group feeling, even in its most chaotic, noisy and intense moments. These four extended improvisations emphasize the depth and the richness of the double bass's timbral range. The pieces quickly blur the artificial distinction between the improvised and the composed. All offer plenty of arresting, weird, theatrical and beautiful, deep resonating tones, even embracing the sound of an annoying autumnal insect, often spiced with eccentric humor.

The following DVDs stress the inclusive and interdisciplinary vision of Saitoh. Music interacts with art in its greater sense of the concept. It is not only a higher form of innovative, reflexive art, but a sonic art that affects dance, movement and visual arts and being influenced by these arts.

Jean Sasportes & Tetsu Saitoh
With Friends in Tokyo, May 2012

This DVD features three live performances of Saitoh and dancer Jean Sasportes—who danced in choreographer Pina Bausch Company, began his free dance improvisation in 1985 with the late, great double bassist Peter Kowald and collaborates frequently with Saitoh since 2006—with close collaborators, all filmed in three different halls during a short tour around Tokyo in May 2012.

The first performance is with the Looking for Songs trio—Saitoh, vocalist Junko Satoh and violinist Naoki Kita. Sasportes blends organically with reserved spirit of this trio and his unhurried movement intensify the dramatic, often melancholic vein of the trio songs.

The second, and longest performance, 57 minutes long, feature Saitoh, Sasportes and Kita in an intense, free improvisation where everything can happen and nothing is of the ordinary whether it is a simple movement or any sound. Again, it sounds like the three share a unique, telepathic understanding that one can attribute only to many years of experience and shared wisdom. Sasportes' movements in this improvisation embody magnificently the spiritual and often poetic, searching spirit of such a totally spontaneous work of art. He, Saitoh and Kita, keep themselves jumping over an imaginary cliff into uncharted territories, with no safety net, expecting only fresh, surprising discoveries and and occasional painful falls. Simply doing it—as a paraphrase on Bausch's words—because they must, otherwise they, metaphorically speaking, will die.

The last performance was filmed at a larger hall in Tokyo Metropolitan Museum and feature Saitoh, Sasportes, double bassist Takeshi Seo from the GEN311 Ensemble and dancer Naoka Uemura, all performing in front of a large, colorful painting of Yuji Kobayashi, whose paintings suggest a glimpse to "the border melting between reality and imagination" (Saitoh collaborated before with Kobayashi on Flooded Forest, Travessia, 2011). It is a more rhythmic and melodic piece, compared to the previous ones, often adapting passionate Argentine tango elements, enabling both Saitoh and Seo to present their inventive array of extended techniques (including playing with two bows on the double basses that are laid on the floor). Sasportes and Uemura opt for slow, minimal yet sensual movements, expressing the male-female passion in a gentle, implied manner that offer a light contrast to the dark and busy deep toned colors of Saitoh and Seo. Still, both the double bass players and dancers deliver this inspiring improvised piece with common elegance and clever sense of humor.

Tetsu Saitoh
Eurasian Echoes, Vol. 2

Saitoh recorded the first volume of Euroasian Echoes in 1993 in Seoul, Korea with an ensemble of three Japanese musicians and four Koreans, most of them playing traditional instruments. The new, larger yet similar ensemble summoned for the second volume expands Saitoh's composition from 1995, "Stone Out" (released on Omba Records, 1996), dedicated to the Korean shaman Kim Suk Chul and Japanese koto master Kazue Sawai, whose repertoire covers works by modern composer John Cage and Sofia Gubaidulina and collaborated before with Saitoh {Yaeyama Yugyoh, Jabara, 1996) and other innovative double bassist Joëlle Léandre (Organic -Mineral, In Situ, 2001). Sawai is one of the main soloists in this recording, alongside violinist Kita and Korean sax master Kang Tae Hwan.

Saitoh writes in the liner notes that he felt that in both nations "the strength, flexibility and the radicalism of tradition." And indeed "Sound Out" is an ambitious composition that plays with the 'out' aspects of the tradition more than relies on its 'in,' conventional aspects. It progresses as a sonic ritual, sometimes reminiscent of a shamanic ritual, but leaves a lot of freedom to all the musicians (including the ones who play traditional Japanese and Korean instruments), to improvise and add their own personal interpretations in extended solo parts. Actually, these musicians who play the traditional instrument demonstrate how vivid and inclusive and open to radical, even dissonant sonic searches are the Far Eastern musical traditions.

Saitoh's global musical vision is expanded with the presence of Sasportes, who was born in Morocco but grew up in Europe, and the Korean dancer Nam Jeong Ho, who, like Sasportes, was a disciple of choreographer Pina Bausch. The dancers, as the musicians, emphasize the open, searching spirit of this most beautiful composition for a shared, equal and compassionate platform, "regardless of genre, nationality, race or age," as Saitoh concludes.

Tracks and Personnel

Mei-Duo Improvisation Live at Kid Ailack Art Hall

Tracks: 1st part: Moonlight through window; 2nd part: the sun and the moon.

Personnel: Tetsu Seitoh: double bass; Naoki Kita: violin.

Live at Pole Pole Za

Tracks: Kawa no Hajimari; Ksenitis; Kyo wa Watashi no Hi; Watashi no Hana; Aah, Selim; Me wo Tojite; Kanshu San; Kiri no Naka no Hukei; O Gloriosa Domina; Gururioza; Kaze ga Omote de Yondeiru—Param; Hikari Shizukeki.

Personnel: Tetsu Saitoh: double bass; Naoki Kita: violin; Junko Satoh: vocal.

Barre Phillips & Bass Ensemble Gen311

Tracks: Improvisation 4; Improvisation 3 (Commandante Barre); Improvisation 2; Improvisation 1 (with an Autumnal Insect).

Personnel: Barre Phillips: double bass; Tetsu Saitoh: double bass; Masao Tajima: double bass;; Takashi Seo: double bass;; Kazuhiro Tanabe: double bass;; Pearl Alexander: double bass.

With Friends in Tokyo, May 2012

Tracks: 5/19 @ Pole Pole-za; 5/21 @ Kid Ailack Art Hall; 5/27 @ Tokyo Metropolitan Museum.

Personnel: Tetsu Saitoh: double bass; Jean Sasportes: dance; Junko Satoh: vocal (1); Naoki Kita: violin; Naoka Uemura: dance (3); Takashi Seo: double bass (3); Yuji Kobayashi: painting (3).

Euroasian Echoes, Vol. 2

Tracks: Stone Out.

Personnel: Tetsu Saitoh: double bass; Naoki Kita: violin; Kazue Sawai: 17-strings koto; Koto Quartet Radentai—Shin Ichikawa, Ai Kajigano, Mayuko Kobayashi and Azumi Yamano: kotos; Won II: percussion; Kang Eun II: haegeum; Hur YunJun: ajaeng kŏmungo; Kang Tae Hwan: saxophone; Jean Sasportes: dance; Nam Jeong-ho: dance.

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