Natto Quartet

Thousand Oaks

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Released two years after Headlands, the group's debut, Thousand Oaks brings proof that Natto Quartet might be in it for the long run, and most certainly has the strength to do so. "East meets West" is not a new concept in music, not even in free improvisation. What sets this album apart, though, is that there is no "East meets West" going on here -- in fact, there is no "East" or "West" at all. Chris Brown's disembodied piano notes and Tim Perkis' subversive electronics sound as exotic or outside of one's own culture as Philip Gelb's shakuhachi and Shoko Hikage's koto. And it seems likely that Japanese listeners would feel the same way. After all, no one in this group plays his or her instrument in a conventional way. Hikage's bowing techniques in "Chawan Mushi" make the koto sound like a Chinese erhu. Gelb bends notes on the bamboo flute in ways that should be impossible. Brown's playing may be the most conventional on this album, as he doesn't use preparations or play directly on the strings a lot, but he engages the koto in complex dialogues and uses an unsettling form of fractured phrasing. Perkis' computer doesn't add a modern touch to the sound palette as much as it expands it from the inside. The album consists of seven tracks recorded in the studio. "Ume" is the longest one at 11 minutes, and is given the task of setting the mood. It is not the group's best effort, but it puts the listener in a receptive frame of mind. The other improvisations are all shorter (between three and nine minutes) and exquisitely started and stopped. "Kinpira" and "Kuri-ae" stand out, mostly because of the range of emotions they set in motion, but each track features a very strong level of ensemble playing. Thousand Oaks is the album of a group that is in complete possession of its art but still holds a few surprises for the future. Come for the unorthodox instrumentation, stay for the level of collective improvisation.

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