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CD Review: Meg Okura And The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble “Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto”

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If you remember the 1980 hit song “Computer Game” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra (or should I say, if you are still trying to forget the 1980 hit song) you may wonder why YMO composer and band member Ryuichi Sakamoto would be the subject of a jazz tribute album. I have to admit, I had no idea who Sakamoto was when I put on the CD by violinist Meg Okura and The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble; I was simply charmed by the lyricism of the melodies and Okura’s vibrant arrangements.

Only then did I look into Sakamoto’s career. Happily, I found that he had added quite a lot more to his resume since “Computer Game.” He wrote the score to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” the theme of which is included here. And he collaborated with some of pop music’s greatest innovators — David Sylvian, Thomas Dolby, Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins, and Tony Williams — and wrote the Academy Award winning score to “The Last Emperor” with David Byrne. “The Last Emperor” theme is one of the most beautiful pieces on this superb album.

Sakamoto’s great melodies, informed by all manner of Eastern and Western influences, are one of the reasons for the CD’s success. But an equal amount of credit must go to Okura (who also plays erhu, a two-stringed traditional instrument from China) and her excellent quintet, featuring Annie Drummond on flute and alto flute, Helen Sung on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, E.J. Strickland on drums, J.C. Sanford conducting.

This combination of instruments is absolutely perfect for the evocative music that fills the CD. While there are great flute and piano solos, the deliriously wonderful sound here is Okura’s violin soaring above it all like some wild far-eastern fiddle. Okura plays with just the right combination of control and abandon to bring out all of the colors of Sakamoto’s rich sonic palette.

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