Album Review: Naoko Sakata – Dancing Spirits

[Pomperipossa; 2021]

In May 2020, Naoko Sakata released Inner Planets, a solo set of longish improvisations that showed the virtuosic pianist setting aside the jazz structures and frameworks of 2016’s Dreaming Tree, a conventional yet compelling project released by the Naoko Sakata Trio (Sakata on piano, Alfred Lorinius on double bass, Johan Birgenius on drums). On Inner Planets, Sakata steered seamlessly from fluid passages to staccato and chaotic movements, demonstrating her absorption of the classical canon while asserting iconoclastic impulses.

With her new solo album, Dancing Spirits, Sakata offers seven improvisational tracks, which, building on the performances of Inner Planets, show the Japanese-born and Sweden-based musician instinctively and intuitively striking fertile balances between maximalism and minimalism, euphony and cacophony, continuity and nonlinearity. “Improvisation 1” opens as a relatively legato and moodily hypnotic piece, Sakata acclimating the listener before plunging into the progressive sounds of “Improvisation 2”, which features more complex discordancy, experimentation with timing, and fluctuations in volume. Around the three-minute mark, Sakata demonstrates her ability to play rapidly (and rapturously) while loosely preserving a melodic thread, transporting the listener into a state of breathless euphoria.

With the opening of “Improvisation 3”, Sakata plunges into thunderous chords and trebly runs, brief clusters and abrupt dissolutions of sound, as if she were providing a sonic complement to a creation story. Here, to pursue the metaphor, cells coalesce and split; new life forms evolve, establish presence, and are rendered extinct, Sakata combining classical rigor and free-jazz-inflected disinhibition. She segues around the two-minute mark, embracing a semi-motific passage replete with the most defined melodies of the sequence. As the piece progresses, she builds on and dismantles these melodic trajectories, soft voicings juxtaposed by stentorian catharses. The piece ends with a tremulous and truncated passage, Sakata eschewing a predictable crescendo, finale, or otherwise conventional resolution.

While improvisation suggests the absence of preparation, one can’t take that to mean that musicians don’t bring partialities, emotional bents, and aesthetic defaults to the improvisational process. While the first three tracks of Dancing Spirits show Sakata experimenting innovatively and evocatively, these opening forays seem notably representative of her stylistic proclivities. She, so to speak, is very present. With “Improvisation 4”, however, it’s as if Sakata has entered an expansive state of self-abeyance, the track demonstrating how sublimely spontaneous expression, contingent on egoic surrender and keen energetic engagement, can be attained by a masterful practitioner; a creative unfolding that marginalizes or even obliterates, at least temporarily, the inner critic, the conditioned censor, and/or the personality with its signature preferences.

“Improvisation 5” is air to the protean earthiness of “Improvisation 4”, reminiscent of Monet’s “Water Lilies” or Bonnard’s yellowy garden scenes. The piece is nirvanic, sun-splashed, and affirmative. The 11-minute “Improvisation 6”, along with “Improvisation 4”, is Sakata’s tour-de-force of auto-erasure, a testament to transpersonalism as much as instrumental virtuosity. Sakata once again constructs and deconstructs motifs, encountering and detachedly articulating natural integrations and disintegrations, paradoxes and contradictions, balances and imbalances. To use Buddhist terms, what’s present is the suspension of clinging and aversion, an experience-and-response occurring moment-to-moment, uncompromised by the conditioned drive to introduce or sustain meaning or context (this is what the surrealists were striving for with automatic writing).

The set closes with “Improvisation 7”, Sakata’s return to sparseness and brightly etheric articulations, a sanguine manifesto that contrasts with and serves as a coda to the mercurial “Improvisation 6”. The final minute evokes a sense of buoyancy and wistful pensiveness, a sonic simulacrum of enlightenment. As with “Improvisation 3”, “Improvisation 7” avoids a formulaic closure, Sakata opting to conclude elliptically.

The first half of Dancing Spirits spotlights Naoko Sakata’s impressive skills as an improvisational pianist. The latter half of the album, however, is a master class in extemporization that brings to mind the best work of Gertrude Stein, Jackson Pollack, and Miles Davis. Dancing Spirits is reminiscent of the one-stroke Buddhist/Zen-based technique, which may well have been a source of inspiration for Sakata: fluid icons created by one continuous brushstroke of indeterminate length, though the technique has been adopted and modified by various artists. With Sakata’s improvisations, we encounter singular dalliances with the Beyond, each piece offered via an uninterrupted and irreducible performance.