By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Hiroshi Nomura|
THIS IS THE STORY OF THE COMPLETE MUSICIAN. Or fairly complete -- Ryuichi Sakamoto would say he's only begun his search for the definitive sound. And that'd be saying something, coming from a man with a rather astounding number of achievements spanning the realms of film and television soundtracks (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; The Last Emperor; Wild Palms; The Sheltering Sky; High Heels; The Handmaid's Tale; Snake Eyes; Love Is the Devil; many more); techno-pop (Yellow Magic Orchestra); grand-scale operas; collaborations with avant-garde poets, players and DJs; and the opening music for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Over the phone from Tokyo, Sakamoto sounds matter-of-fact about his scroll of career highlights. It's this brand of cool that, for example, has allowed him to interpret so persuasively the airy mysteries of Antonio Carlos Jobim on a sterling new disc called Casa (Sony Classical), as a pianist in empathetic collaboration with Brazilians Jaques Morelenbaum (cello) and Paula Morelenbaum (voice). Sakamoto finds an affinity with the sensuously bittersweet soul of Brazil, and with Jobim: The path of beauty and substance is common to all three.
As he negotiates the misleadingly pretty twists, turnarounds and surprises, Sakamoto performs alongside the Morelenbaums on these hitherto unheard Jobim works with such intricacy and poise as to be translucent. The composer's charts left plenty of room for expansion.
"The piano playing on this album is a reflection of the way Jobim played," says Sakamoto. "Since the first time I heard the bossa nova, the thing that struck me most was his touch -- it sounded almost like Zen, and not only the spaces between the notes, but the timbre, the kind of filtered sound of the piano. It's like a meditation."
At the recording sessions, which took place in Jobim's house on the outskirts of Rio, Sakamoto played Jobim's actual piano, which must've engendered a sense of obligation. You can hear Sakamoto channeling the master's spirit.
"You could see his fingerprints on the keyboard," he says. "You know, it's almost sacred -- you can't touch. But I did."
Brazilian sambas and bossa novas often come off mushy and insipid, usually owing to performers' aloofness to the material's wily strategies. Sakamoto, though, grounded not only in the French "impressionist" composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Satie but also in ethnic musics and electronic composition, has the qualifications -- high intelligence, good taste -- to play Jobim's music. And his own compositions reflect a superwide harmonic/melodic/timbral range he developed by listening to everything: "Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Johann Sebastian Bach, Brahms, Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, gamelan, African tribes," he says.
For many years at least one of Sakamoto's avid pursuits has been beauty -- how to perfect and redefine it. (He even titled his 1990 solo album with the word.) But he's also striven for intellectual rigor, content. His work has addressed beauty in overtly lush European ways, and in the more, say, Japanese way of exploring empty spaces to draw power from unstated emotions. He has absorbed a great variety of music. But these days he's not such a feverish student.
"Into my 20s, of course I was interested in other people's music, but I was not interested in establishing my own style. That's why I took a path to one thing, then to other things. And that was fun, and that confused my listeners a lot. But now, probably for the first time in my life, I'm looking for something of my own."
So what clues the musician toward his own destined road? "I don't have any particular approach," he says. "Ideas come to me whenever -- when I watch CNN, or I'm reading a book or doing photography." When the song strikes, he usually has something at hand to capture it with. "Driving a car, I don't have any device except a cellular phone. So I call my house, and I put a melody or some idea onto my own answering machine."
SAKAMOTO HAS ENJOYED A SMALLISH SIDELINE as a face, with memorable roles in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; The Last Emperor (his score for the latter earning him an Oscar and a Golden Globe award); and more recently Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel. That was Sakamoto playing "the Director" in Madonna's "Rain" video, and you've seen him draped stylishly in ads for Barneys New York, fashion designer Antonio Miro and the Gap. His sullenly handsome charisma seems a natural for the silver screen, but he found the acting life disheartening.
"I decided not to take roles after The Last Emperor. I like movies, but I'm a really bad actor."
But his performance in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was . . .
"So bad. People can't see my consciousness on the screen. That's really annoying. The only film director who could pull me out is Jean-Luc Godard."
Sakamoto's Web site reveals that he's not an artist who lives in a plastic bubble. Www.sitesakamoto.com is a valuable source of activist links concerned with militarism, terrorism and retaliation, nuclear proliferation, economic exploitation of the Third World, the environment, and numerous geopolitical issues; it's also a forum for intellectual-property rights. Yet his art doesn't strike one as politically motivated.