Improvised music from japan has long had a cd shop associated with it but not much of a physical presence. That has changed with the establishment of a cd store and venue at Suidobashi near the heart of the heartless city of Tokyo. It's been open for a few months now but I hadn't found time to go until last night. Hearing that audio cable geek supreme Toshimaru Nakamura had designed the sound system and Tetuzi Akiyama had done the decorations intrigued me, and the lineup of Madoka Kono, Jusei and Yosuke Morone (諸根陽介) last night promised a classic Japan Improv. Experience.
The new store/venue at Suidobashi is called fttari, the same name as the label run by IMFJ head honcho Yoshiyuki Suzuki. The shop is a mere 5 minutes from Suidobashi station in the basement of a nondescript building down a sidestreet, all details which could describe any number of small Tokyo venues. Fttari does have a warmth to it that many small spaces lack, though, created by the clear segregation between a bright CD store space and a clean, black performance space.
Tall, skinny, expensive looking Bose speakers project the mid and high frequencies into the audience while the bass is handled by some freaky looking woofers at the base of the speaker columns. I know nothing about mid to high end audio, but it looked promising. It's certainly the first time I've seen a speaker system which could be snapped in two during a good bar fight. Evidence of Akiyama-san's "decorations" was thin, but if he's behind the solid paint work on the walls, I commend him.
When listening to intermittent sine waves, sitting on a hard, low stool is part of the authentic Japan Improv experience. So when I sat down, I was surprised to find that my chair was relatively comfortable. That was the first clue that tonight would offer a counter example to the usual IMFJ theme of art as suffering. The second clue was Madoka and Sei singing a duet in the first movement of the night - I'm guessing it was an 80's J-pop cover but don't quote me on that. If the tape players ever break down, or the feedback loses its squeal, Madoka might have another avenue open to her. She could at least lay down some pretty nice B.V.s. The rest of the night continued in this eclectic vein. Ju sei's Jun alone veered between J. Pop, thrash metal and extended guitar sounds and also delivered one of his rare rap performances over the top of some west coast hip hop playing tinnily from his i-phone.
Yup, it was a kitchen-sinker, but the periods of unadulterated "serious" improv were among the best I've heard from these guys.
The times when things collapsed down to a Madoka/Yosuke duo were particularly good in terms of density of sound and clarity of concept. Madoka abandoned her usual tasteful restraint and pushed some mean air around. At one stage Yosuke had an ostensible joke solo in the middle of one of the pop songs (Sei (taking a break from waving her arms around): "Morone-san solo!") where he generated some of the creamy-smoothest white noise I've ever heard.
Ju-sei's progressive pop continues on it's journey into ever more baroque territory. Their new "Kome-tsubu" song (米粒 - a grain of rice) starts out as what seems like an improv game where Jun roams the fretboard until Sei pounces on him with a chant of "kome-tsubu" which he backs up with a repeated refrain on his guitar. (Having seen it twice, I'm pretty sure it's not a game, but a set in stone composition, which kind of makes my head hurt). The "song" then diverges into about four sub songs, all of them with their own charms and hooks before eventually coming back to grains of rice... Paul McCartney and Wings eat your heart out.
I have to imagine that this is the liveliest night that fttari has seen. The elder statesmen of Tokyo improv. aren't shy of cracking the odd musical joke, but they'll often form an entirely separate project in order to show that side of themselves (see Taku Unami （宇波拓）and Hose). Indeed, fttari as a label is for me tied to the meditative, hard edged style of playing, and I'm a little wary when the youngsters mix it up; am I just listening to a big in-joke? Then again, depending on who you ask this whole scene is an in-joke. Whatever the intellectual implications, in terms of pure enjoyment, this concert was a winner for sure.
Returning to fttari as a space, the sound and the sound placement are definitely well above average. Ftarri is probably the best place in Tokyo to listen to slightly detuned sine waves ( Yosoke uses scientific grade generators to make his, so he has a special place in my heart). The sheer density of different modes of sound as I moved my head around was impressive. The bass is also clear and heavy, without being overwhelming. Nice job Mr Nakamura! I'm definitely looking forward to hearing a whole lot more music there.