Sometimes great tragedies give way to the most life affirming expressions of hope. Veteran drum maestro Akira Tana, whose resume dazzles with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Hubert Laws, formed his quartet Otonowa in 2012 to tour and raise funds for the communities devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. With many of the affected areas still struggling to recover, the ensemble has toured the region annually since 2014.
Otonowa’s third album Ai San San – Love’s Radiance pays tribute to the victims with one of the most fascinating displays of cross-cultural, genre-transcendent fusions in recent memory. The group, featuring saxophonist and flutist Masaru Koga, pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Noriyuki “Ken” Okada, powerfully blends traditional jazz vibes and improvisation with distinct Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi (Koga), koto (by guest Shoko Hikage) and taiko drum (by guest Kenny Endo).
Koga and Endo create a soul-stirring duality on the title track “Ai San San,” with the taiko forming a hypnotic percussive foundation for Koga’s dreamy flights of fancy. Most likely, American jazz audiences won’t know the original pieces being re-imagined in trad jazz settings here, but the concept bears mentioning. Otonowa finds fresh ways to interpret Japanese traditional and pop songs, some of which have been part of that culture for generations. Perhaps the oldest of these is the 1923 pop song “Habu No Minato,” launched with the starkness of the koto before incorporating that stringed exotica into a funky, soprano driven romp.
Other highlights include the drumming at the start of “Tsunagareta Tairyo-bata,” a blend of classic fisherman folk songs, and a stark, solemn, flute, piano and percussion led arrangement of Horace Silver’s “Peace.” This last tune offers the serenity and hope everyone involved desires for the survivors who have endured so much.