various artists,
The Very Best of Japanese Music
(ARC, 2004)

Traditional Japanese music covers a wide range of sound and emotion, from the delicacy of the koto (a plucked, zither-like instrument) and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) to the frenzied impact of the taiko drums. This CD, a sampler of several of ARC's albums, offers a fine overview of the music that should appeal to new listeners and those who already appreciate the textures of Japanese music.

And textures is the right word. The traditions of Japan are very texture oriented, whether it be food or crafts or music. The sensory touch of an item, the feel of a piece of food in the mouth, the body-shaking rumble of the taiko drum or the sound of the shakuhachi that can be piercing one minute and sweet the next -- all contribute to the Japanese experience. There are six different ensembles and soloists here, all giving representative examples of their repertoire.

Clive Bell and Richard Stagg each play lovely unaccompanied shakuhachi solos, while the bamboo flute is heard in a larger ensemble in three pieces performed by the Yamato Ensemble, which adds koto and jushichigen (basically a bass koto). The interplay between the instruments is delightfully understated, moving from serenity to sprightliness. It's extraordinary how the sound textures of the instruments complement one another, similar to a western jazz quartet. Ayako Hotta-Lister plays a koto solo whose English title is "Disarray," apparently represented by some discordant passages. It's a placid tune that's subtly disturbing, and a good example of the emotional intricacies of Japanese music.

Two groups of taiko drummers are on hand. Waidaiko Matsuriza performs two pieces, the first a depiction of samurai spirit that builds throughout to a liberating climax of drums and shouting. The second, which translates as "Let's Have Fun," uses metallic percussion instruments, bell and cymbal to create a playful yet intense sound. Nihon Daiko provides the final track, a drum ensemble composition that starts out delicately but becomes more and more powerful right up to the overwhelming finish. It's recorded well, but nothing beats seeing taiko drummers live, where you can actually feel the sound waves in the air. This is the next best thing.

The Very Best of Japanese Music lives up to its name. Here is music in the grand tradition of Japan, with its textures and sounds perfectly intact. Anyone wishing to make the acquaintance of this highly rewarding music is well advised to start here.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 30 October 2004

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