Review: Kaoru Abe – Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki

by Nathan Nicolau

Image courtesy of tumblr.com

Halloween. 1971.

A young man walks into a classroom at Tohoku University carrying a saxophone, a harmonica, and a bass clarinet. He looks no older than twenty-one with his long, straggly hair and lanky posture. In fact, he looks like he could be a student at Tohoku. But he isn’t going to class. He dropped out of high school at seventeen to practice solely on his music, despite being self-taught at a very young age.

One couldn’t believe it, but this young man named Kaoru Abe has been causing a scene in the underground music world and on this Halloween day, he is about to perform for a group of liberal arts students. Joining him is the young drummer Yasukazu “Yas-Kaz” Sato. As Yas-Kaz sets up his odd drum kit complete with bells, bongos, wood blocks, and different sized gongs, Abe prepares his weapons of choice. He wishes to begin with a rendition of a cheesy pop song from the early 60’s called “Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki” (“As Acadia Rain Stops”). Abe prepares his bass clarinet and starts the first few bars…

It sounds like a man possessed. Abe closes his eyes as his instrument takes hold. Notes come squawking out, like a demon trying desperately to be released. The melody becomes lost in a sea of noise, supplemented by the fragmented and beat-less drumming by Yas-Kaz. It sounds like utter chaos. But the more we listen, the more we hear moments of genius…

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There have been plenty of archival recordings by free-jazz saxophonist Karou Abe but Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki is among one of his most unique. Unlike all of his other recordings where he plays original improvised solos, here he is playing a variety of jazz standards and pop songs. However, this does not diminish Abe’s improvisational skills at all. In fact, his ability to turn these songs on its head to the point of incomprehensibility makes this a testament to Abe’s craft. It is probably his most accessible recording thanks to the recognizably of his songs. But still, one should not expect easy listening fare. Abe’s self-taught style is as subversive as Ornette Coleman, as passionate as John Coltrane, and as unabashedly wild as Peter Brotzmann.

Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki (like most of Abe’s recordings) was released posthumously. Interestingly, it was released nearly 20 years after his death from drug overdose. The audio quality sounds like it was single-handedly recorded by an audience member directly on tape, with Abe front and center and Yas-Kaz unfortunately sounding a bit muffled. However, the power of the music is still captivating. The title track especially sounds like a haunting tone poem. Abe switches between the bass clarinet and saxophone seamlessly as he deconstructs the melody, adding in high-pitched wheezes and thunderous low notes where they shouldn’t belong. Despite the randomness of his solos, one can hear Abe’s sharp ear for phrasing. The notes he doesn’t play seem as important as the ones he does. It adds a melodic rhythm to his seemingly sporadic playing.

The duo then takes the classic happy-go-lucky tune “Chim Chim Cheree” and turns it into a symphonic cacophony. Yas-Kaz flies off with a catastrophic solo that puts any punk drummer to shame. Abe complements him with an equally ferocious solo that never seems to take a breather. In quite possibly the most avant-garde Disney cover ever, these two men show the peak of their improvising abilities. Their playing builds up like a pot-boiler, growing more intense with every measure until an abrupt ending. This is most certainly a highlight track for Yas-Kaz, who proves himself to be a worthy companion to Abe. It’s remarkable that this is their only known recording together.

From “Chim Chim Cheree,” Abe transitions to his rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” with a harmonica in hand. Abe pushes the sound of the harmonica to the limit. It’s almost jaw-dropping how he is able to replicate his signature saxophone sound with a much smaller instrument. Yas-Kaz smartly quiets down, putting Abe front and center during a distinctively mystical performance. Abe plays calmly in fragments, omitting parts of the melody in favor of lamenting yelps, cries, and even sobs. It’s a moment that proves that Abe was more than just a self-taught noise artist of the time. He was a gracefully skilled multi-musician whose technical solos carried deep emotional weight. You can hear a pin-drop as Abe lays down his heart. Things kick into high gear when he suddenly switches to his muse, the alto sax. We are treated to a thrilling climax, continuing the same mystical energy as before. But this time, there’s an element of eeriness through Abe’s decision to mix in quieter notes with abrupt harsh ones. Once it ends, it feels like we’ve been taken on a spiritual journey much like the later works of John Coltrane.

Abe closes by stretching out the jazz standard “Lover Come Back To Me” into a thirty-minute magnum opus performance. Although “Lover” is supposed to be played as a slow ballad, that does not concern Abe. He does not let the constraints of melody or scale hold him back as he deconstructs the famous melody then eases into a whirlwind of noise and soundscapes. For the next thirty minutes, Abe subjects his audience to relentlessly raw energy never heard before. His saxophone cries out to us like the man desperately yelling “Lover! Come back to me!” from the song’s lyrics. It’s a deeply visceral performance that highlights the album.

Why Akashia was withheld from release until 1997 is a mystery, much like Abe himself. Being one of his earliest recordings, it would be too easy to assume that it was just an early exercise by an up-and-comer trying to find his footing. However, a few minutes into the title track proves this wrong. Abe’s boldly catastrophic yet transcendental sound is evident right out the gate, clashing with the traditionalist nature of the jazz/pop standards he chose to cover. This makes Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki a self-assured early album that showcases Kaoru Abe’s controversial genius.

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