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Natto is a very sticky fermented bean dish that Japanese people occasionally serve to test Westerners's taste for their traditional cuisine. It makes for a somewhat appropriate name for this improvising quartet. Shakuhachi player Philip Gelb, koto player Shoko Hikage, pianist Chris Brown and Tim Perkis on electronics have refined an approach that avoids the usual coagulating pitfalls of cross-cultural collaborations. To this end, they wisely keep their respective, substantial CVs low in the mix, creating an alluring music predicated not on research or idiomatic expertise, but an obvious faith in the primacy of sound. Throughout Headlands, a well-engineered concert recording, each sound has the self-contained integrity of a stroke of masterful calligraphy, but still conveys a catalytic value in an unfolding piece of spontaneous music. Subsequently, traditions resonate in Natto Quartet's music instead of being referenced, and their varied, pungent flavours are never reduced to a muddle.
The latter point is salient because, more often than not, the Quartet's improvisations move predictably between soft and loud, sparse and dense. Subsequently, Gelb and Hikage are faced with the intersecting challenges of integrating traditional and extended techniques, and choosing when to sidestep or meet the occasional deluges head on. Perkis and Brown have a complimentary set of challenges, centring around their obvious capacity to drown out the subtleties of the traditional instruments. Close listening prevails, however, as each musician seems to have a perfect bead on the other's next steps. This facilitates both striking shifts in mass and exquisitely elongated gradations of colour. Still, there is just enough volatility in the quartet's music to keep it from being rubber stamped as 'Deep Listening'. The resulting anticipation is as rewarding as the music's frequently surreal hues.