Online since August 2002

Mellowing out, for a change of pace

Reviewed March 2006

Strange Village
Strange Village
By Gato Libre

Muzak Inc.: 2005

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com (Japan) entry.

"Strange Village," performed by the group Gato Libre led by trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, is as remarkable as it is unexpected. It is nearly unfathomable how one could create something as utterly unworldly as Tamura's "In the Tank," released by Libra Records in mid-2005, and follow it up with an effort as refined and structured as "Strange Village," performed by the quartet Gato Libre under Tamura's leadership, and released late last year.

A possible explanation could be that several years have passed between the 2001 recording session that produced "In the Tank" and "Strange Village," though the recent release of the latest Satoko Fujii quartet album featuring husband Tamura suggests that their wooliness remains intact.

Fujii, an extraordinary pianist, composer and leader in her own right, also is heard on "In the Tank" and "Strange Village." But what makes the transition to the latter even weirder is that she forsakes the instrument with which she has made her mark and takes up the accordion, which she plays mostly without the abandonment and fury that characterize her piano work.

Though any follower of Fujii's music would be unprepared for the instrument switch, it is an entirely appropriate choice for the approach of "Strange Village," essentially chamber music with a pronounced Mediterranean tinge promoted by the acoustic guitar expertise of Kazuhiko Tsumura and bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu – along with Tamura, of course.

In keeping with the album's theme, Tamura entirely abandons his inclination for playing the trumpet as if he were an extra-terrestial newcomer experimenting with a strange new toy and plays the horn straight with a beautifully burnished tone, nuanced by inflections and trills that enhance the emotional impact of his statements.

"Strange Village" is the kind of music you would expect to hear stumbling into a cafe on the village square of a seaside hamlet, whereas "In the Tank" sounds like a scuba divers' jam. If Handel gave us Water Music, "In the Tank" is Underwater Music, like an extended instrumental version of Tom Waits' prose poem, "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" on "Bone Machine." It's hard to find a tonal center, let alone a discernible melodic theme. In fact, the magic of this effort, in which Tamura and Fujii are joined by Takayuki Kato on guitar and Elliott Sharp on both guitar and soprano sax, stems from the viscous collage of sounds from which a thematic symmetry emerges. Rather than dictating a key and pedal points, the sounds quaver around a tonal vortex, without really settling on it. The metallic clatter accompanied by squeaks and squeals and wails and howls really do conjure up the audio imagery of lurching about many fathoms below the surface.

For Tamura and Fujii to be the progenitors of this motley morass of sound and the succinct, graceful and plaintive harmonies and melodies that inhabit "Strange Village" – it's as if a jellyfish and a kitten emerged from the same womb.

Yet, there's a thread of commonality in that bizarre combination in that what Tamura apparently was striving for on "In the Tank" was an acoustical soundtrack of the marine world, as signaled by the track titles: "Walking Squid," "Flying Jellyfish, "Sinking Shrimp and "Crowing Crab."

Although the verbal clues aren't as obvious on "Strange Village," the title as well as a painting of a black cat on the cover within a village setting cues us into what Tamura may have been aiming for – a musical cavalcade that would befit a feline's picaresque prowl.

Regardless of the device that inspired "Strange Village," the music stands on its own. The opener, "Morning Mist," establishes the misty melancholy that prevails through most of the album, paced by the haunting melody articulated in long, full tones by Tamura. Whereas on other efforts he has sounded as if he is on a mission to see how many different noises he can squeeze out of his horn ("A Song for Jyaki" and "How Many?"), his work on this album is exemplified by the second piece, "Gentle Journey," which he launches a capello with ponderous puffs of notes, and the title tune, which with its dolorous melody and Fujii's lugubrious accordion could seamlessly substitute as the theme song to "The Godfather."

His tone on this album is less brash and piercing than it is on Fujii's high-powered fusion quartet works, when he by necessity must be roaring. Here, he stays completely within the trumpet's natural range and works mostly in the middle and low realms.

As with her husband, you never know quite what to expect from Fujii, but pulling out an accordion for the "Strange Village" date is quite a surprise and in contrast to her frequently ferocious pianistics, her playing here is mostly subdued and complementary, yet facile, leading one to suspect that she has played the instrument quite a bit. She gets an opportunity to cut loose a little bit on the uptempo, flamencoish "Welcome Party," in which she plays a lurching solo, exploiting the accordion's sonorities with splashes of clusters.

The deference of her playing here as well as Tamura's lead to the conclusion that the impetus for the approach adopted on "Strange Village" is the artistry of Tsumura. His sound, ranging from the percussive thrumming of "Dance" and "Journey Again" to the delicate, single-note runs in his duet with Fujii on "Dialogue" weaves all the elements, including the powerful stitching of bassist Koreyasu, into an eloquent embroidery. The depth and profundity of his playing become more apparent and intoxicating with each listen.

As mentioned above, Fujii, with her husband in tow, has already released yet another album, a continuation of her fusion quartet series, and this has the wicked vibrancy of the three prior efforts. Since the late 1990s they have generated CDs with astonishing rapidity and built a vast library of works, of which "Strange Village" is the most restrained and conservative, like a Goya painting hung in the postmodern wing, yet which in its own delicate way is full of delights and enchantments.

Review by Michael J. Williams. Michael is a San Diego-based writer and editor.

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