The great Japanese drummer Nori Tanaka had lived in Chicago for a decade when immigration authorities forced him to return home last July, and at the time I wrote about his struggle to stay. Now he's back in town, but sadly it's not for good--though he's playing a slew of gigs over the next couple weeks, after that he'll be leaving again.
Wednesday night Tanaka will be at Heaven Gallery to take part in a record-release celebration for The Art of Dying (Delmark), a surprisingly swinging session led by bassist Jason Ajemian early in July 2007, as Tanaka's departure loomed (and Ajemian prepared for his own move from Chicago to New York). Billed as Smokeless Heat for this show (after the album's lengthy closing track), the group is basically the trio of Tanaka, Ajemian, and superb tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, with support from guitarist Matt Schneider, trumpeter Jaimie Branch, and vibist Jason Adasiewicz (playing marimba).
Though both Tanaka and Ajemian seem to favor settings where the rhythms and textures mutate rapidly and kaleidoscopically, on The Art of Dying they maintain a hard-swinging pulse. Such a sensibility is at the root of Tanaka's style--he only ventured into more abstract terrain after nailing the basics earlier in his career--but you'll rarely hear Ajemian laying down so many walking lines. I've also never heard him put his penchant for weird vocal incantations to better use--on the spooky, spellbinding "Machine Gun Operator," a simple ascending figure keeps rising into a falsetto cry.
Ajemian wrote many of the album's catchy and often pretty themes, but lots of the credit for the record's success should go to the three guests, who add wonderful harmonic detail and extra melodic lift. The performances are a little rough around the edges here and there--likely due to lack of rehearsal, a persistent problem with folks who don't make enough scratch with their music and have to spread themselves a little thin with various projects--but that's easy to overlook given the lyrical, tender playing and sharp tunes.
For many years Ajemian, Tanaka, guitarist Jeff Parker, and video artist Selina Trepp got together every Tuesday night at Rodan as A Cushicle, shaping rising and falling grooves with purely improvised materials--their shows became one of the most fun and reliable weekly events in town. Parker has kept the gig going (if not the name) with bassist Josh Abrams and drummer John Herndon, but unfortunately the original lineup isn't reuniting while Tanaka and Ajemian are both in town. At least it's finally possible to hear A Cushicle recorded: Ropeadope recently released Introducing the Freakadelic Sessions (available only as a Ropeadope Records digital download), which captures the first set of the group's Rodan show on April 25, 2006. It kicks off with a version of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One," certainly an apt point of departure, but after that the trio's stream-of-consciousness flow never returns to composed material. This approach works because these players know how to think on their feet--though the recording is raw, with the murmuring of the audience audible, the loose electricity that A Cushicle made seem almost routine is on full display.
Tanaka's got more gigs coming up--I hope to highlight some of them later this week.
Mick Barr, Octis: Iohargh Wended (Tzadik)
Dewey Redman Quartet, The Struggle Continues (ECM)
Neil Young, Hawks & Doves (Reprise)
Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, Blue Jean Bop! (Capitol)
Notekillers, Notekillers (Ecstatic Peace)