(Domo, 2004)

If you're an aficionado of Japanese traditional music, you'll know the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that combines the soulful twang of a banjo with the sorrowful wail of a Dobro. It's too facile, however to compare the sound to western instruments, since the ancient shamisen has a sound all its own. Agatsuma is a young Japanese virtuoso who has brought the instrument into the 21st century, blending traditional shamisen playing with new age, rock, jazz and techno. The results on this album are hit and miss, but the totality shows tremendous promise for both the instrument and the performer.

While groove-oriented tracks like the leadoff "Dawnlight" are inoffensive and not all that interesting, the more Asian-sounding "A Paper in the Air" has a slow, haunting quality that displays the shamisen's percussive quality as well as Agatsuma's expressive soloing. He moves through a wide range of emotions, narrowly evading the risk of being swamped by synthesized strings. "An End of Sorrow" is reminiscent of the Howard Levy-era Flecktones, with a (probably synthesized) accordion standing in for harmonica. It's a solid and simple composition.

"Heartbeat" starts logically enough with a drum groove, over which Agatsuma enters and engages in a wonderful rhythmic improvised conversation, jazz at its purest. "Tears..." boasts some lovely guitar work, which makes a splendid contrast to the more severe sound of the shamisen. The programmed rhythmic clicks on the offbeats, however, are assertively off-putting and distracting to the point of making the track nearly unlistenable, which is a shame considering a fine guitar and shamisen interplay, as well as a violin that wails above the mix. Speaking of assertive, "Shami's Groove" displays Agatsuma's music at its funkiest, with pseudo-Hammond B-3 licks in the background. It really doesn't go anywhere and degenerates into cacophony by the end in a display of chops for chops' sake.

"Baetnorae/Tsugaru Yosare Bushi" more than makes up for it, with a superb, seven-minute conversation between shamisen and percussion that explores both the ancient and the contemporary voice of the instrument to stunning effect. "In the Sky" and "Panther" are both far less interesting, being oversaturated with rhythm and synthesizer tracks. The shamisen's sound is so distinctive, however, that Agatsuma's voice rises over everything, though it's an effort. After the aural assault of the penultimate track, it's nice to end with "Thought of You," a duet between shamisen and piano. Its bluesy discordance is jaggedly appealing, and an elegant way to close the show.

The pluses in Beyond far outweigh the minuses. I'm anxious to see where Agatusuma next takes his instrument and his talents. He's far more interesting when engaging with one or two other instruments than when he's surrounded by a wall of synthesized sound, so it's fascinating to imagine the results of a union with real jazz players (of which there are an abundance in Japan) or even an East-meets-West linkup with such new acoustic string performers as banjoist Bela Fleck, Dobroist Rob Ickes, mandolinist Mike Marshall or a host of others. Frankly, Agatsuma is too good a musician to be caught in the dull if profitable trap of new age or smooth jazz. There's a brilliant musician at work here when we're allowed to hear him.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 9 October 2004

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