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NATTO QUARTET [PHILIP GELB/SHOKO HIKAGE/TIM PERKIS/CHRIS BROWN] - Thousand Oaks (482 Music 1036; USA)
482 Music is an intriguing and diverse improv label that just happens to feature shakuhachi player Philip Gelb on 5 of its 32 releases so far, 3 of those coming from The Space Between, a trio with Pauline Oliveros and Dana Reason, and the other 2 coming from the Natto Quartet, whose earlier release was 2003's Headlands. Gelb deserves the exposure; he's an advanced instrumentalist pursuing an atypical synthesis of traditional Japanese music and avant-garde improv, with recorded results reflecting the caliber of his partners. Like the excellent double-koto trio disc Indistancing (on Leo) with fellow culture-bridge Brett Larner, Gelb's playing with Shoko Hikage on Thousand Oaks doesn't attempt to reinvent the sparse and introspective aesthetics that shakuhachi and koto combinations traditionally--and perhaps intrinsically--lend themselves to, instead achieving a subtle subversion of convention through detailed and unpremeditated interactions with idiomatically uncommitted partners, in this case pianist Chris Brown and electronicist Tim Perkis. In its gestural clarity and focus on large-scale form, the music is closer to the world of "contemporary classical" than most free improv, distantly recalling the sparse, dry vibe of a Takemitsu piece. Further, the energy and density levels are in the low to medium range, in contrast with the ultra-low levels of much recent free improv. Much like his work as a composer and performer on various Tzadik releases, Brown's playing is extraordinary here; he uses inner-piano techniques with precision and makes every sound meaningful, often relating to Hikage's brilliant and quietly ecstatic playing in a way that highlights the common ground of piano and koto as percussive stringed instruments. Perkis rarely lapses into the yucky old-fashioned timbral cliches of academic electronic music, and he reveals an unusual capacity for real-time control over phrasal details across a wide range of timbres, assuming a role in the total sound space akin to a fourth acoustic instrument. Critically and thankfully, his sounds are issued with such dynamic sensitivity that they usually subconsciously modulate the other instruments instead of attracting attention.to themselves - his blending with shakuhachi in "Kinpira" is a wonder to behold. He contributes just enough to transport the music to the frontiers of timbral mystery. With its weighty slowness and isolated gestures, it sounds like the musicians are inadvertently completing each other's phrases with a constant reallocation of foreground-background relationships, fulfilling the promise of collective improvisation to create music of subtlety and complexity far exceeding the imagination of its participants. Unlike the famously pungent fermented soybeans the group derives its name from, this music will not inspire aversion in equal measure to gourmet delectation; at worst, some may find it to be restrained, pleasant improv, while others, like me, will hear a rare level of nuance and balanced interaction that invites repeated immersion in a profound listening experience. A strong candidate for my year-end improv top ten.