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Hokusai is a brilliant album conceptually, a tribute to the painter of one of the world’s best-known images, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. It’s also one of the finest by a great jazz pianist at the height of her powers, drawing on her remarkably diverse influences. Aki Takase studied classical piano at Toho Gakuen School of Music and made her first recording in 1978; in her second, in 1980, she led a quartet including Dave Liebman. She has played in duos with Maria João Pires, her husband Alex von Schlippenbach, David Murray and Rudi Mahall, and co-led the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra with Schlippenbach. She has lived in Berlin since 1987, participating in the free jazz movement.

In the year of her 70th birthday – highly significant in Japanese culture – this album was recorded over two days at the Sendesaal Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, mostly in the studio but with some live pieces. All compositions are by Takase and are performed solo except ‘Hokahoka Hokusai’, in which Takase recites in Japanese before being joined briefly by author Yoko Tawada, and ‘Bach Factory’ by Takase and Schlippenbach, which begins as a performance of Bach’s Prelude No 2 in C minor before transmuting into a motoric improvisation.

This isn’t the only classical tribute – the opening ‘Crane’, presumably referring to Hokusai’s ‘Cranes’ from 1823, is infused with the Tristanesque yearning of Berg’s Piano Sonata Op 1. Takase plays celesta on the plangent and playful ‘Nihon Bridge in Edo’, inspired by Hokusai’s wood carving of the same name and based on the koto’s pentatonic scale. ‘Hokusais Meer’ is a turbulent piece of free jazz improvisation showcasing Takase’s beautifully controlled high-energy playing. Overall, the album has a wealth of incident packed into 12 performances. Exploiting the full range of dynamics, spontaneous in improvising, stylistically diverse, lucid and logical, passionate and sensitive, this is jazz pianism of the highest order.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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