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Bay Area musician Philip Gelb is, without a doubt, one of the preeminent practitioners of the shakuhachi in free improvisation, having immersed himself equally in the rich traditions of the instrument and spontaneous improv settings. The collective Natto Quartet is one of the best ensembles yet, to experience his masterful work. What makes them so striking is the timbral range they explore, combining shakuhachi with koto, electronics, and piano. Like Gelb, koto player Hikage is a master of both the traditions of her instrument as well as settings for collective free interactions. Rounding out the quartet are electronics musician Tim Perkis, and pianist Chris Brown, both of whom have extensive backgrounds playing electro-acoustic music in both composed and improvised settings. Thousand Oaks is the quartet’s second release, recorded with impeccable care in a live concert at the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley. Though broken into seven cuts, the CD moves in a natural flow as the non-tempered microtonalities of shakuhachi, the metallic resonance of koto, the skittering gestures of electronics, and the precisely placed ringing piano notes coalesce into finely tuned collective explorations. Each note stands out in the sonic ground as the four build taut improvisations full of stately beauty. While AMM is a certainly a starting point here, this is music that develops its own sound, created by four musicians who are careful listeners. Their ability to balance densities and dynamics create pieces that move at a measured pace. That, and their keenly balanced dynamic tensions and release makes this a spellbinding listen.
©Cadence Magazine 2006