Perfect Sound Forever

Masayuki Takayanagi

Non-Section Music: An Overview
by Mike Wood
(June 2010)

Sonny Sharrock was not the only guitarist during the heyday of Free Jazz to try and create the holy roar, the seeking of spiritual truth through free improvisation pioneered by John Coltrane; a listen to any of Sharrock’s final solo records and his work with Last Exit in the late '80's attests to the fact that he remained both disciple and prophet through to his death. But in Japan in the late '60's and early '70's, someone else was hearing the freedom and transcendence offered by Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and others. Masayuki Takayanagi, whether solo, in collaboration with the equally fearless saxophonist Kaoru Abe, or within the various bands he more often than not called New Direction Unit, plugged in his guitar, turned it to 11 and tuned into interstellar space. His catalogue is challenging, hypnotic, frightening, and as completely free as the music of any of his heroes.

While more than capable of –and more known for--the total freakout, throughout his career, Takayanagi embraced sublime traditionally based compositions and solos, and also beautifully explored flamenco, folk music and electronica. He actually got his start playing in a series of Jazz bands in the late 1950's, one of which was called New Directions Quartet, a name he would recycle throughout his career.

Takayanagi saw his music progress as a progression through terms, from jazz to “real jazz” to “Non-Section Music,” the latter a term he used to describe his music as a continuous piece, one extended exploration of sound. It was always important for him to title his music, yet not define it, as if assigning a purpose to each gig or session gave him a framework to work within/extend beyond.

Masayuki Takayanagi built up his chops in the center of what is gaining recognition for being one of the greatest periods of experimental music: late '60's, early '70's Japan. Long enamored of Western popular musical styles, Japanese rock and pop bands were not quite adept at translating their power (witness the often comical Japanese Rockabilly and metal bands). As the worldwide wave of openness and rebellion of the 1960s reached the youth of Japan however, they not only showed a deep grasp of the experimental music--Blues-based Psychedelia, Noise, Free Jazz--but that they understood Western intentions, and often surpassed Western artists. Blues Creation, Kaoru Abe, Travelling Flower Band, Keiji Haino: the list goes on. The creative energy and accomplishment of this period, which peaked out around 1973--is one of the richest in any country’s history.

Takayanagi rode the crest of most of those movements, often urging them forward with his own work. There isn’t so much a progression of ideas in his catalog so much as a long record of choosing which musical pulses--and impulses-- with which to sync. Straight jazz was a fresh a vein for exploration in 1956 (Swing Journal All-Star Orchestra) as it was in 1974 (Panic, a duet with pianist Mitsuaki Kanno). The freeform guitar he helped pioneer with the 1958 New Directions Quintet (he was also one of the first to employ table-top guitar, a precursor to noise) was still ripe for taking chances in the late '70's, and lead to his exploration of noise and ambient near the end of his life in 1991. In addition, he continued with various bands and duet recordings, and also explored Flamenco and live improvs with other guitarists--a notable example of the latter is one of his last releases, El Pulso. Whatever the genre, and whoever his bandmates, Takayanagi both assaulted his instrument and caressed from it moments of beautiful sonic colors that transcended the styles of his tunes.

In addition to a prolific output of studio recordings, Takayanagi also was noted for his frenzied live shows (many of these are documented on disc as well). Significantly, many of his concerts were titled. What was there in band names and in the naming of shows: an indication of a goal for that evening? An intent? A one-time event? Certainly there is a traditional Jazz idea concerning 'The Song': whether recorded in studio or performed live, the song is never finished developing, there is never a definitive version. Any cut of a song shows its development at that moment, the tune always growing. Was this Takayangi’s nod to the tradition, or did he have other ideas?

To pour over his massive discography--those you can find, legally, and those long out of print--or to just check in on the various samples and video clips on the web (try here, here and here) can lead to several guesses as to the answers of those questions. There is an intensity, but also a deliberate joy to his playing that, even in the eye of the hurricane he is creating, there is contentment. Such a presence and awareness of the moment can only suggest a focus on each performance as a singular event, either as a new opportunity to create or to place himself in that odd state of chaotic peace. One wonders if the audiences experienced anything like that centered space.

Takayanagi was at work exploring right up until his death in 1991. He has begun experimenting with drone and noise/ambient, and performed several solo acoustic guitar shows during which he displayed a lyricism that might shock those used to hearing only his massive attack. He certainly was a guitarist’s guitarist, one who, like Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe and others, is more known by the artists who learned from them than by their own work. In Takayanagi’s case, one can hear him feeding back through Thurston Moore, Makoto Kawabata, Oren Ambarchi, and others. He seemed in his later years to draw both from his experience with free-form and classical motifs, as well as from new trends in the avant-garde. True to his spirit, Takayanagi saw no end to the process of evolution and expansion.

Masayuki Takayanagi was a revolutionary artist, uncompromising in his intent and generous in his execution. Even a cursory spin of any of his records will attest to his passion and fearlessness. Underneath the maelstrom, there was a precision and, oddly, reverence for sound, as well as for the precise moments when sound becomes all there is. And all that is needed.

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