Hidekazu Katoh
& Richard Stagg,
Masters of the Shakuhachi
(ARC, 2004)

The shakuhachi (or bamboo flute) dates back to medieval Japan and is usually associated with Suizen (or blowing meditation). A notoriously difficult instrument to play, the shakuhachi in skillful hands will yield emotionally rich and sonorous notes.

Such skillful hands are evident on Masters of the Shakuhachi, on which Hidekazu Katoh and Richard Stagg have recorded five duets ranging from the traditional to the contemporary. The album includes compositions by the late Toshinao Sato, Seizan Ikeda and Hozan Yamamoto.

Unlike the more traditional shakuhachi pieces that offer much solemnity and space for meditation, this album is full and melodious. Tracks like "Tsuido (Pair in Motion)" seem more suited for a new-age spa or Japanese fusion restaurant rather than for meditative moments. Whereas more listeners will enjoy the playfulness offered by these relatively melodious recordings, along with the melody also comes a bit of the melodramatic -- something else we can file under the name of progress. Call me old-fashioned, call me romantic, but the highlight of the album, for me, is the rendition of "Shika No Tone (The Braying of the Deer)." Since it is a traditional composition dating to the 18th century, it contains much of the longer contemplative phrases and more of the starker intonation common to most shakuhachi albums I've heard.

Throughout a number of the other compositions ("Hato No Iru Fukei," for instance), Katoh and Stagg seem to slacken a bit from form and offer some intimations of jazz improvisation. Though they are few and far between, one can understand why a number of Western avant-garde musicians have been turning their ears eastward. Albeit, the playing on this album does not quite approach the styling of Akikazu Nakamura, there is still much to be learned for any aspiring artist concerning scales, ranges and endurance of breath.

Stagg, a non-Japanese performer of shakuhachi, studied within the Kinko-ryu school under Yoshikazu Iwamoto. Though he has 20 years of training behind him, he plays only the standard-sized flute on all five pieces, alternating between lead and accompaniment. Besides the standard-sized shakuhachi, Katoh (of the Chikuto Group at Chuo University) also performs on the elongated nishaku-issun and nishaku-yonsun. Though Masters of the Shakuhachi shares some masterful playing of a difficult and intimidating instrument, it's five 10-minute-plus tracks are not for the impatient and casual listener. Listen closely and you shall be moved with these eloquent sounds. Do not listen too closely, though, or you may be surprised with blown eardrums during some high-pitched whistling in what appears to be the climax of each performance.

review by
Kevin Shlosberg

2 June 2007

what's new