Friday, November 25, 2005

Music Review: Tatopani at Sweet Basil

Double disclaimer: number one, Robbie Belgrade is a friend of mine, number two, the music of Tatopani is exactly the kind of music I like :-). So, your mileage may vary.

Last night Mayumi and I snuck out to hear Tatopani play at Sweet Basil in Roppongi. They were playing a (sold out!) release party for their new CD, Azure (which has been reviewed by Daily Yomiuri, Mainichi, and Japan Times, so if you don't trust my review, try them).

I have heard Robbie play with a couple of other groups; I like this one the best, by far. Tatopani is Robbie, Chris Hardy, and Andy Bevan, with the new addition of Bruce Stark, all of whom have lived in Tokyo for a long time.

So what's the music? One of them described Tatopani as "kick-ass world music" in an interview. That's as good a description as any I could come up with; I don't have the technical vocabulary to explain it. If you like, say, Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road albums, recent Wayne Shorter, and Dave Brubek's "Blue Rondo a la Turk", you're going to like Tatopani. This is not the "world pop" of somebody like Angelique Kidjo, nor the driving rock-influenced work of Joe Zawinul. The rhythms are complex, but there is a lot of space in the music, and indeed they name Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" as an influence.

All of the guys play an array of instruments. Robbie's preferred woodwind axe is a bass clarinet, but I might actually like his sax playing better. For good measure, he plays a very mean tabla, and a pandeira (Brazilian tambourine) that has remarkable expressiveness. Chris's percussion setup looks like he went into a percussion store and bought one of everything. He had seven gongs, eleven cymbals, a djembe, another African drum (ashiko, maybe?), a wooden box, a doumbek with a high, crisp sound, and on and on. On one tune, he played a terracotta vase which had a nice bass and a higher, clear sustain. Andy played soprano sax, didjeridoo, flute, and some percussion. He played a kalimba (African alto music box played with your thumbs, more or less) on one very nice tune, "El Jinete". Bruce is the slacker in the instrument count department; he stuck with acoustic and electric pianos, except for one tune he contributed some percussion to.

Most of the tunes on Azure were written by Robbie. Some start with a spacious, slow opening before moving into more up-tempo sections. I really like the bass groove Bruce lays down on the opening track, "Azure". As you'd expect with a group like this, the rhythms are hideously complex in places; one tune is in 11/4 time (named, not coincidentally, "Eleven"), and I couldn't identify the time signatures on a couple. They opened their second set with "Bat Dance", by Chris, in which Robbie and Andy support a long, complex, exciting solo by Chris on the frame drum. The range of sounds ten fingers can get out of a piece of skin stretched across a wide, shallow wooden frame is simply amazing.

Sweet Basil is a great place to hear music. It's new, the food and sound are quite good, and the ventilation keeps the smoke level down. The desserts were excellent, and the potato soup rich. Mayumi had duck and I had lamb for main dishes; they needed a little salt and pepper, but were well prepared and presented. If you're headed there, make reservations, and show up early. Seating is by order of arrival. Tatopani sold out; I would guess the place probably holds 2-300 people. We got there early enough for good, but not great, seats, about 7:00.

The web site only lists last night's gig, but they were talking about a number of other appearances scheduled around Japan in the next several months. Hopefully they'll post a schedule soon. I know Chris is playing a percussion duo concert with, um, I'm having trouble reading the name, Shoko Aratani? at Philia Hall on March 4.

Hmm, Chris and Shoko are also playing with Eitetsu Hayashi on December 23rd? Hayashi is the taiko player of whom another professional musician said, "When Eitetsu plays, times stops and you can hear the Universe breathe." He's astonishing. See this if you can!

Tatopani's CDs can be ordered through their web site, where you'll also find sound samples.

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