Japanese traditions sweetened by Western sound

CD REVIEWS

January 01, 1998|By J.D. Considine

Melody of Japan

Joy of Spring (King 2127)

Brightness of Summer (King 2128)

Pathos of Autumn (King 2129)

Stillness of Winter (King 2130)

Japanese classical music is something of an acquired taste - apparently even for many Japanese. Although "hogaku," the nation's musical heritage, dates back some 600 years, it isn't particularly popular among modern Japanese. As musicologist Minoru Miki has observed, certain performance practices - particularly the extremely stylized vocals - sound "unnatural" to contemporary listeners.

So for his "Melody of Japan" series, Miki decided to preserve traditional music by adapting it to modern tastes. In addition to transferring vocal melodies to the flute or shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), Miki's arrangements often augment such traditional instruments as koto (a silk-stringed zither), shamisen (a three-string lute) and biwa (a four-string lute) with a Western string orchestra, an approach that softens the music's often brittle tonality without taking away from the austere beauty of the songs themselves.

As such, the series makes an excellent introduction to traditional Japanese music. Because many traditional pieces focus on the wonders of nature, Miki has organized "Melody of Japan" around the four seasons.

The cycle begins with "Joy of Spring." Unlike Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which presents the stirrings of life with a savage vitality, pieces like the slow, stately "Sakura Sakura" ("Cherry Blossoms") and the gently rippling "Wakakusa" ("Grass of Spring") take a far more contemplative tack, seeing not only hope but a transient beauty in the season's first growth. As such, the volume makes much of the koto's strength as a solo instrument, keeping the accompaniment lean and understated.

"Brightness of Summer" offers a meatier and more energetic sound. From the spritely, percussive "Yagi-Bushi" ("A Song of Yagi") to the soaring, majestic "Chidori no Kyoku" ("Plovers"), its arrangements are big and colorful. "Shiroi Kaze no Shita de" ("Under the White Wind") is particularly striking, contrasting the warmth of the Western strings against the tart twang of the koto.

"Pathos of Autumn" arrives with an even lusher sound, deftly supporting the koto and shakuhachi of "Zangetsu" ("A Lingering Moon at Dawn") with a soft cushion of strings, while adding much-needed color to the stark lines of "Aki no Irokusa" ("Flowers of Autumn"). But the album's greatest charm is its vitality, as "Aki Shoshite" ("Autumn Dance") comes across with engaging vigor.

By contrast, there's a calm to "Stillness of Winter" that suggests the quiet of snow on a frozen lake. It helps that the material itself is so gentle, with the lulling melodies of "Tsuru no Sugomori" ("A Nesting Crane") and the restful "Edo Kumori Uta" ("A Lullaby of Edo") being typical. But there's also a real melancholy to tunes like "Kuro-Kami" ("Raven Black Hair"), a mood that eloquently evokes the somnolent sadness of winter.

The 18th Letter (Universal UD-53113)

The selections on Rakim's "The 18th Letter" are such a study in quality rap that they should be required listening for some of today's hip-hop artists. The CD marks the return of Rakim after a four-year hiatus. While this collection of eloquent raps will undoubtedly suffer comparisons to his sterling earlier work with DJ Eric B., Rakim's latest effort shows that he still reigns. On the title cut, his seemingly effortless rhyme style finds Rakim sounding like the godfather of rap, and the perfect mix of hot beats and clever lyrics on songs like "Guess Who's Back" defy the listener to not get up and dance. Rather than relying on sampling and the retooled tunes of established artists to carry the song, "The 18th Letter" reminds listeners that a talented rapper needs only a microphone and linguistic skills to be great.

Lisa Respers

Roni Size and Reprazent

New Forms (Mercury 314 536 544)

Winner of Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, "New Forms" by Roni Size and Reprazent has been hailed as the future of drum 'n' bass - and no wonder. Size does much to broaden the dance music's dynamic range, bringing a loose, jazzy feel to its hyperkinetic breakbeats, something that keeps the pulse from seeming unnecessarily frenzied. It helps that Size instills an airiness to his mixes, keeping clutter to a minimum and making the space between the notes as important as the notes themselves. But it's his sly sense of swing that makes the greatest difference in the music, energizing rap-oriented tracks like the title tracks and adding pop appeal to tunes like the soulful "Watching Windows."

J.D. Considine

Imani Coppola

Chupacabra (Columbia 68541)

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