The trio’s style of interplay leans more toward artful mosaic, occasionally disorienting collage, than linear deployments of hook, bridge, and return. A song may begin on a distended bridge, end on an unresolved chord or suspended beat, and somewhere surprisingly in between find it’s singing, melodic head sprouting from its torso—like a Keith Haring mural.
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If life is about how we react to what is thrown at us, Sana Nagano chose wisely in the summer of 2020. After nearly half a year of anguished isolation, the violinist made an album of honest, graceful free improvisations with two of her mentors. Anime Mundi, out October 28th on 577 Records, pairs her with pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger and drummer Billy Martin, veteran players at home in the unknown. And though recorded during the stressful first year of Covid, there is joy and curiosity in the music. It’s just mixed in with sorrow.
“I wanted to document how rough I felt internally and how much I cared about people, that I always had before the Covid,” says Nagano. “But then all of a sudden, friends and people became such a very precious thing. It was always precious, but I just never knew that there was a time that I can’t see them for such a long time.”
The leader of her punk-jazz improvising unit Smashing Humans, as well as Go: Organic Orchestra, led by Adam Rudolph, and VEER Quartet, led by fellow violinist Sarah Bernstein, Nagano approaches things with sincerity and openness. The Brooklyn-based string player joined Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra after a brief introduction at the Jazz Gallery in 2011. An instrument was mentioned and an invitation was offered.
“I saw the show and I talked to Karl and it was just the easiest process, actually,” recalls Nagano. “I just said, ‘I play violin,’ and then he was like, ‘Oh, then bring it the next time.’ With a smile and twinkle in his eyes.”
A co-founder of the famed Creative Music Studio, Berger, according to Nagano, specializes in the moments surrounding the music. The deep breaths before diving in.
“That space he has between the sounds, before he plays and right after he plays each note, I just think that it sounds more like he’s aware of those spaces than many other performers,” says Nagano. “And that’s something that I look for when I play with him, and that’s something that I want to pay attention to when I play. And I feel like I am trying to seek it or learn it whenever I see him playing.”
Nagano connected with Martin, of Medeski Martin & Wood, through Creative Music Studio, of which Martin is now Executive Director. She appreciates the double-sided nature of his concept, which blurs the line between form and shapelessness.
“Whenever I hear Billy playing in a recording, each sound was beyond the styles or genre, or what kind of grooves he’s playing,” says Nagano. “Is he grooving or is he playing improv-y stuff? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just that he is playing the sound. Which is Billy’s sound. I appreciate it, because then groovy music is free music, and free music is groove music, or jazz standards. They’re all kind of connected.”
Before entering the studio, Nagano intended to compose for the trio. But considering the state of the world at that time, it made sense to go in a more instinctual direction.
“I wanted to make a little plan, or write some songs and stuff, but I think it just felt like it was right to do free improv,” says Nagano. “And also I think Billy thanked me because there were no songs, so we could just play. It felt like we just needed to play and see what happens. I don’t like to use the word ‘see what happens’ when I improvise normally, but this time it just felt right.”
The album’s lengthiest exploration, “Apocalypso,” builds higher and higher before landing on a tranquil acoustic piano vamp. Nagano hears the pain in the piece, but also the spirit.
“I thought that we sounded like we were crying,” explains Nagano. “Especially the stuff like track two, ‘Apocalypso.’ Every time I hear it, I’m surprised with how rough and crazy it sounds. It just feels like the world is going down, and then we’re very sad about it, and how sad it sounds, and how destructive it sounds here and there. I find it to be strange, but it’s beautiful. And I’m proud of that kind of sound that we were able to execute.”
Anime Mundi closes with “The Empty Ocean,” which dips its toes into an eerie sparseness. But the unsettling sounds are merely a path. Follow it long enough and you’ll find the light.
“It felt kind of like we’re going down the rabbit hole, some kind of dark hell kind of idea, but then the sounds always had some element of kindness,” says Nagano. “Some kind of beauty in the way it sounded. It’s dark, but it’s not the end-of-the-world kind of darkness. It’s more like, there’s some kind of reason why this is happening. The reason is that we’re going through this so that we can heal and make the world better.”
released October 28, 2022
Sana Nagano - Violin/fx
Karl Berger - Piano/vibraphone
Billy Martin - Drums/percussion
Recorded August 18, 2020
Recorded and mixed by Chris Bittner at Applehead Recording, Saugerties, NY
Mastered by Fred Kevorkian, Kevorkian Mastering
Album art by Hiiro Nagano
Album title by Rachelle Viola aka dr!p
Graphic design by Mark Smith
Music by Sana Nagano (Ninja Kittens Music, ASCAP), Karl Berger, Billy Martin
577 Records is an independent record label based in Brooklyn, New York operating since 2001
An intruiguing mix of Jazz and Ambiant, of organic instruments and electronic sounds. It wanders a little, let's itself be influenced. It's not an easy listen, but it is very interesting. Thibaut Devigne