Dancer in Nirvana – Kazuki Yamanaka

Saxophonist Kazuki Yamanaka is a new name to me, but this is his second album (his first, Songs Unconscious-minded, was released in 2015). The Dancer in Nirvana personnel line up is as follows: Kazuki Yamanaka on alto or soprano sax, Russ Lossing at the piano, Cameron Brown plays bass, and Gerald Cleaver is on drums.

The album plays out between the jazz tradition and the atonality of contemporary jazz. I have to admit that the freer end of this musical spectrum did, initially, cause me some concern in terms of a subjective review in that, being a non-musician, I do not fully understand the compositional structure or playing of free jazz. After a little research, with some help from, and repeated listening my response to atonal music is shifting.

The title track to the album, ‘Dancer in Nirvana’, was inspired by a visit to Sanjusandgendo, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. In the main hall of the temple stand a thousand Kannon statues and it is Kazuki’s response to the silence that surrounds these statues that guided his writing. This is a track that needs to be listened to, not just heard, and responded to with your own emotional reaction to someone else’s experience: my reaction changed and opened up the more I took the time to engage with what I was hearing.

‘Elusive Mood’ has swing about it and a resolution within the tune’s structure that put me on a more familiar footing in terms of the style of jazz that stimulated my interest in the art form in the first place. ‘John’s Green Place’ is “a heartfelt dedication to John Abercrombie” (liner notes) and plays beautifully throughout with wonderful tone from the saxophone and stellar playing by Russ Lossing at the piano.

‘The Life of a Mushroom’ is built around a repeated phrase picked up by each member of the rhythm section before both sax and piano take the music down a more abstract route. ‘Stella’s Fancy’ and ‘Lady Peacock’ both have a bop style vibe about them. The playing on both swings and is driven by some terrific bass work from Cameron Brown with strong support from drummer Gerald Cleaver.

‘The Lost Sheep’ takes the listener back down the freer jazz style employed across this album. There is some beautiful phrasing throughout this track with clean playing from Kazuki Yamanaka on the alto sax. ‘Reminiscence’, the final self-penned tune from the group’s leader, highlights the control that the saxophonist has over his instrument. There are some wonderful soaring passages that are a joy to listen to, and, again, the playing of Russ Lossing is perfectly pitched throughout.

‘Epilogue’ is an improvised piece and, therefore, writing credits are attributed to the group. An epilogue is placed at the end of a work to serve as a comment on or draw a conclusion to what has come before: in this instance I find the epilogue ambiguous and perhaps, given the freerer jazz styling that peppers this album, that should not come as any great surprise.

I did enjoy this album, and it has helped open my mind to the more abstract jazz style that I have always shied away from in the past. I found this an intriguing set played by musicians who know when to support and when to stretch out. The control shown across the range of his playing by Kazuki Yamanaka is admirable and the plaintive quality to his sound is effective: a player to listen out for as he develops his sound and his compositional voice.

Dancing in Nirvana can be found on the Fresh Sounds New Talent label

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