What the Thunder Said


Masayuki Takayanagi New Direction Unit
April Is the Cruelest Month
Kojima : 1975

MT, guitar; Kenji Mori, alto sax, flute, bass clarinet; Nobuyoshi Ino, bass, cello; Hiroshi Yamazaki, percussion.

This most obscure Japanese album almost had a high profile in the U.S. It was originally scheduled to be released stateside by ESP Records, but the deal went south at the last minute. One can only speculate how this remarkably forward-looking work might have influenced the scene if only it had been heard. Years later, this music had another brush with wider exposure. “What Have We Given?” was originally slated to appear on Jazz Satelites 2, but Virgin pulled the plug on the project even as the artwork was being readied by the printer.

Famous assessment by Takayanagi of his peers in Japan’s jazz community, circa the mid-60s. Takayanagi started playing jazz in the 1950s in swing bands. At the age of 37, he discovered free jazz, formed his New Direction Unit, and pushed his music into the stratosphere. Both a technical virtuososo and a creative maverick, he was one of the earliest noise guitar improvisers anywhere in the world. Not to mention one of the most significant.

“What Have We Given?” features plangent and beseeching saxophone squawks against a clanking undercarriage of unsettling rhythms. There’s not so much a definitive beginning, middle, or end as the feeling that the sounds simply enter your speakers and later exit. That indeterminate vibe. This is one of Takayanagi’s more compact and controlled offerings, but hardly pop. And despite the presence of guitar, it’s about as far from “rock” or “fusion” as possible. It has more in common with the Free Improv music from Europe at the time, though mixed with an abrasive early 80s Industrial feel, avant la lettre. If Takayanagi’s playing here recalls Derek Bailey, it’s important to remember their styles developed simulataneously without any apparent influence on one another. This track nicely represents one side of Takayanagi’s work, sometimes called “gradual projection” for how the pieces slowly emerge, the notes patiently accreting, almost ambiantly making their presence felt.

Here’s the other side of Takayanagi. One of his most ferocious blowouts, “My Friend, Blood Shaking My Heart” should be legendary among shredders and free rock noiseniks. A sustained sonata of radical amp destruction, it ranks up there with such stratospheric works of extremity as Dave Burrell’s “Echo.” It’s not proto-noise, kids, but straight up NOISE. A whirlwind of atonality that suspends any sense of passing time. You can hear more than mere echoes of this free jazz/free rock/assault-and-battery in the best work of Keiji Haino’s Fushitshusha, especially their legendary double live effort.

A few copies of the CD reissue (which includes bonus tracks) may still be available through Jinya Discgrab one now!

There’s some speculation the album title isn’t a reference to T. S. Eliot’s modernist poetic touchstone “The Wasteland” as much as the infamous Eliot-inspired musical “Wasteland!,” briefly produced in Tokyo by dadaist theatre impressario and movie director Shuji Terayama in the early 1970s. “April is the Cruelest Month” was the show-stopping number, complete with a kick-line of chorus girls. It was apparently met with hails of riceballs.


Discussion6 Comments Category Masayuki Takayanagi

6 Responses to What the Thunder Said

  1. BEAUTIFUL post. I remember discussing the (relatively) recently-released New Direction Unit album “Eclipse” online a while back, and “Echo” came up there, too. In its densest, most ponderous moments, the Unit achieved a level of sonic “size” that took the energy aesthetic of American, post-Ayler improvisation to an innovative logical extreme. Takayanagi’s takes off on what happens at the peak moments of music like “Echo”, when melody, harmony, and even rhythm are blurred; it’s about the accretion of discreet musical elements into units–a unit–of sonic space and the ebb and flow of that total group sound.

    Another thing–“slow” is the new “loud”. The weighty fulminations of the New Direction Unit, and maybe the early free work of Ray Russell–it’s also there in some of Derek Bailey’s stuff (“The Last Wave”?)–have this edgy sluggishness that’s just so much more metal than metal. The bashfest stuff is awesome, too–tortured ecstasy, at its best, to challenge Ayler–but I can’t imagine a better illustration of what electric instrumentation can do in a free improvisation setting than, say, “Eclipse”. (I mean, when the electric guitar is not just another saxophone.)

    And I love Takayanagi’s cowboy fuckoffishness. There is a true sense of iconoclasm in this music because it’s not just frat boy noisy–it’s thoughtful, often discomfiting, emotionally and psychologically scouring music.

  2. great post. and great comment by karl. i am a huge fan of “echo” and what i have heard of new direction unit but i have never heard “eclipse”. i think i would like it. post it here??

  3. Interesting stuff. I’m intrigued by the reference to the musical version of ‘The Waste Land’. Wonder if it’s available in any form?

    The Japanese free-jazz scene, particularly in 70s/80s, seems particularly interesting, but as all the artists are so obscure (even compared to their American counterparts!) it’s quite hard to actually know what stuff to look out for. Maybe a Japanese free-jazz primer could be one of your future posts?

  4. There was a most interesting article in _The Wire_ a few years ago (two?) about the Japanese free-jazz scene, which got me looking for both Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe (of whom you guys have also written so eloquently before). Talk about “cowboy fuckoffishness”! This music refuses to be assimilated (pardon the nerd impulse). As antithesis to the Japanese love of the cute/perverse, such music (all the way out to Merzbow, whose _Merzdub_ with Jamie Saft is outstanding, BTW) is a permanent trangression and source of confusion, for me anyway. What is it with those islands? The mystery is the gift, indeed.

  5. this is f-ing gorgeous! free noise is a beautiful category for sure, not often enough heard over here. (what do I mean by over here? mostly, my living room). Friends of mine are in a free noise unit in Santa Fe NM called The Late Severa Wires, always a pleasure.

    permanent transgression indeed…..by the way, the Graves/Pullen post floored me as well. Youse guyz sure are swell.

  6. Great post!

    more more more!

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