Sunday, February 5, 2012

JAM DESHO: Maki Asakawa - Asakawa Maki no Sekai

By Steve Jones.

This week, the Samsonite Samurai is all about the rule of cool, so play this debut album from Maki Asakawa in the background and feel like the coolest cat in the neighborhood.

Maki Asakawa (浅川マキ) was an extremely prolific jazz and blues singer.  Starting with this, her 1970 debut album Asakawa Maki no Sekai (浅川マキの世界), she released over 30 records and continued performing live up until her death in 2010.  Admittedly, I am rather unfamiliar with her extensive discography, but this album is good enough to stand alone.

The greatest selling point of Asakawa Maki no Sekai is Asakawa's voice.  It has this really warm almost husky timbre.  While not quite as eccentric as the delivery of her contemporary Nico, Asakawa's voice seems to effortlessly fit into each track here, and it evokes a smokey, nostalgic quality that transports me to a small jazz bar in early 1970s Japan.

The songwriting is similarly strong and evocative.  What I particularly like is the diversity of the tracks.  It begins fairly jazzy, but it delves equally into psychedelic rock, bossa nova, and enka--a balladic form with roots in Japanese folk music.  There's even an affecting rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."  Asakawa's voice is predominantly at the forefront of each track, but the backing instrumentation, while restrained, performs perfectly in fleshing out the rest of the sounds.  As with any jazz-based album, you can expect piano, percussion and bass, but several tracks, especially "かもめ," feature an impressive flautist.  There are also many moments that feel like Asakawa is sitting on a darkened stage with just her guitar and a microphone.  In fact, the entire album sustains a sense of intimacy, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of these tracks were recorded live.

One thing that really sets Asakawa Maki no Sekai apart from other similar records are the transitions between tracks.  After each song finishes, there are these abstract sound collages which can last anywhere from a few seconds to over a minute long.  Some feel like field or city recordings, others feel like sketches, and others feel like more deliberate pieces of musique concrete.  I'm not sure what the reasoning behind the transitions could have been, but they do make an already great album even more interesting and mysterious.

If you want something to soundtrack those quiet moments of contemplation, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, Asakawa Maki no Sekai will take you away to another time and place.

(Every week, Steve dons the mask of the Samsonite Samurai and invites you to join him as he explores the wide world of music in Japan. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy doing that kind of thing.)

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