Hailing a Japanoise guitar maestro

Pub date October 17, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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FULL CIRCLE For more than three decades Masayuki Takayanagi (1932–1991) has served as a cult figure to a small but rabid coterie of listeners searching for the roots of extremity in improvised music and free jazz. The Japanese guitarist has received kudos from renowned experimentalists like John Zorn and Otomo Yoshihide yet has remained obscure because his recorded output has been generally unavailable. During the last decade a slew of his reissued recordings have been available only as hard-to-find, pricey imports, while the original vinyl pressings have changed hands for ridiculous amounts of money.
So what’s the big deal? Beginning in the late ’60s, Takayanagi blazed kamikaze musical assaults of a previously unheard violence and abstraction in the jazz idiom. Long before the pure Japanoise of artists like Merzbow, Masayuki Takayanagi threw down a gauntlet. “I always feel that beauty of form and tone are lies. Playing music that’s muddy and violently splattered is an essential way of getting at the truth,” he once wrote. This approach manifested itself in a concept he called “mass projection” — a gushing, sweaty arc of maximum density and energy that was savagely defiant of melody, interplay, and structure.
Unfortunately, a good portion of Takayanagi’s early free-music output is marred by lousy recording quality: early ’70s performances on the DIW and PSF labels suffice as archival documents but barely hint at the true strength and articulation of the music. The newly issued CD versions of the mythically scarce 1975 diptych Axis: Another Revolvable Thing Volume 1 and 2 (Doubt Music, Japan) should rectify this situation, presenting almost 100 focused minutes of Takayanagi and his classic New Directions Unit in full fury.
Recorded live in Tokyo on Sept. 5, 1975, the quartet revealed their manifesto in six movements, roughly building from agitated, spacious quietude to climactic, sustained catharsis. Although the volumes mix up the sequence, the release’s freshly translated liner notes suggest that the music can also be pondered in the order it was executed. The first part — a display of Takayanagi’s more minimal “gradual projection” style — evokes the low-volume scuttling of English guitar pioneer Derek Bailey’s early Company groups. Spotlighting acoustic guitar, flute, slide whistle, rubbery acoustic bass, and skittering percussion, the music is pervaded with a deceptively delicate sense of restraint. A second gradual projection concerns isolated, dynamic sounds that burst through silence in their own mysterious tempos. After a few minutes, Kenji Mori’s lumpy bass clarinet croaks while Takayanagi surprisingly sneaks in a few brief melodic shards that allude to his straight-ahead roots. Part three — a dull drum solo — fills space before the final half of the concert: three mass projections. The first builds very slowly, with sustained cymbal wash and sinister tremolo bass bowing before revealing the perverted grunts from Takayanagi’s now-electrified strings. The second pushes the intensity up but still feels like a tease, threatening to explode before receding into sustained tones penetrated by pricking soprano saxophone curlicues and tumbling percussion.
In the final segment the floodgates open, and we are assaulted by a lengthy tirade that appears to start at maximum intensity but manages to blow straight through the roof, ascending into unknown levels of forceful cruelty. Hiroshi Yamazaki’s superhumanly dense drum attack violently propels the onslaught. Bassist Nobuyoshi Ino ditches his main ax, creating an acidic wall of fierce noise on cello while Takayanagi goads his guitar into shrieks of feedback and crusty slabs of distorted density, bashing it with a metal slide. Intermittently cutting through the din on his alto saxophone, the unflappable Mori is eerily eloquent. Throughout this hypnotic overload of information, one might concentrate on the detail of parts, the texture of the whole, or nothing at all. After 16 minutes the saxophone lapses into outright screaming. Takayanagi’s guitar coasts arrogantly over the damage in thick sheets of atonality before rising into dog-whistle range, calling an end to a harrowing 22 minutes of sustained devastation. If only the first and last sequences of this concert were paired alone on one release, Axis might have been Takayanagi’s single finest recording. With these discs, at least, the secret is out, and the tortured innovations of an obscure musical pioneer are finally revealed to a wider audience seeking buckets of blood in their music. SFBG