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Friday, Feb. 23, 2001

Mukai finds brassy brilliance in the balance


Aristotle said that to achieve beauty, proportion is everything. Shigeharu Mukai has contemporized that ideal into a well-practiced jazz unit that is just the right size: big enough for harmonic textures and soloing variety, but small enough for agility and drive. Mukai's latest release, "Super 4 Brass," incorporates his 30 years as trombone player, composer, leader and teacher into a brilliant set of 10 tunes with a powerfully sharp sense of musical balance.

Jazz trombonist Shigeru Mukai

While Mukai has many different working groups in Tokyo, this particular septet has been performing together for about two years. They recorded the CD at the jazz club Someday in Shin-Okubo for the small jazz indie label Shiosai, which has released some of the best Japanese jazz CDs of the past couple of years (on sublabels ZIZO, Studio Wee, Alchemy and What's New). The crisp production allows the listener to really hear the four-piece front-line harmonies of trombone, trumpet, alto and tenor sax over the rhythm section.

This approach dovetails well with a recent, more group-minded tendency in jazz. The last several years in the U.S. have seen a resurgence in large- to medium-size bands with carefully constructed arrangements. Outstanding CDs from Chico O'Farrill, Don Sebesky and the nearly solo-free masterpiece of last year, Joe Lovano's "52nd Street Themes," emphasize the synergy of a coordinated group instead of the self-indulgent improvisation of the soloist.

These CDs, like Mukai's, impress with how neatly individual musical egos are tucked into the sound of a large group swinging together. They prove once again that in the best jazz groups, spontaneous ingenuity need not be sacrificed for well-planned listenability. In fact the two go hand in hand (or rather, ear to ear).

On the CD, Mukai's five originals sound strong packed in between classic melodic gems by Hoagy Carmichael, Thad Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Tony Williams. Perhaps because the trombone is a polymorphous instrument that can play up front on melody, down low for counterpoint and all points in between, Mukai is able to turn out a satisfying sense of unity on his arrangements.

"Super 4 Brass" is nothing if not listenable. On the lively Mukai original "Purple Field," the solos crack wide open over a Latin-cum-bop beat. Yet, even when the soloists are exploring the neat chord changes, the other horns are adding supporting lines, pumping up the pace and hopping in to make splashy, loud segues to the next chorus. There is soloing . . . but everyone's involved.

On the arrangements of standards like Hoagy Carmichael's elegant "Nearness of You" and Rahsaan Roland Kirk's chic, melancholy "Lady's Blues," there are ensemble lead lines and ensemble improvising. Individual solos remain concise, directed and interactive.

The result is a greater range of emotional expression. Mukai's solos on trombone sound less restrained than maturely considered and, perhaps even more importantly, deeply felt. The original ballad "Just Smile" has a consummate, emotional depth that draws on all seven players.

Onstage, Mukai, an experienced performer, knows just how to stretch out into longer solos while keeping a relaxed manner. With none of the center-stage self-promotion of many leaders, his live shows bristle with collective energy. His improvisations deliver up plenty of creative trajectories, nicely captured on his 1998 release, "Stance," but one feels that his heart reveals itself more clearly on "Super 4 Brass." The CD deftly, and warmly, wraps the tight arrangements of a big band around the creative pulse of a small combo for the best proportions of both these traditional jazz groupings.

Mukai's Super 4 Brass can be heard March 4 on NHK FM 5-6 p.m. They will be playing live April 19 at Someday, (03) 3364-2518, three minutes from Shin-Okubo Station, and April 28 at Ginza Swing, (03) 3563-3757, one minute from Yurakucho Station. Recommended shows of Mukai's other working bands are: Feb. 22-23 at Nagoya's Star Eyes, (052) 763-2638, with string quartet and bass and drums; Feb. 26 at Someday, with three other trombones, Imaizumi on piano and a rhythm section; March 2 at Shinjuku Pit Inn, (03) 3352-0381, with Fumio Karashima's quintet; March 7 at Aoyama Body and Soul, (03) 5466-3348, with Tetsuro Kawashima on sax and Imaizumi on piano; March 9 at Alfie, (03) 3479-2037, one minute from Roppongi Station, with Atsushi Ikeda on alto and Imaizumi on piano; and March 27 at Someday with Joh Yamada on sax.


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