There are individuals across the history of time that have continued to fascinate for generations after their demise on account of one thing: enigma. These people, perhaps revelatory in their time, may survive only by word of mouth, fragments of unfinished works, their weatherworn marble bust adorning the walls of a European museum. Consider Socrates: father of modern Western Philosophy, whose original works are lost and who we only know about via the writings of his contemporary playwrights, historians and his student Plato. Or Franz Kafka, the German writer, barely published or recognized in his lifetime, his three posthumously published (but unfinished) novels are now recognized as Modernist masterpieces. Perhaps it is their enigma that makes us attracted to these people; after all, we like a little mystery, a little speculation, and perhaps the little information we possess on these enigmatic individuals can help us form our own opinion about the character of these people: how they felt, what they enjoyed, if they suffered for their work and so on. Perhaps the fragments they have left behind only scratch the surface of the true genius they once possessed. I’ve recently discovered someone who I believe to be a true enigma, a ghost, a shadow of a person, leaving behind a body of work as mysterious as his life was known to be: the saxophonist Kaoru Abe.
I know little about Abe. A quick Google search tells me he was a very important free jazz player in the 70’s, whose life was suffused in a haze of drugs, alcohol, depression and tragedy, culminating in his untimely death before his 30th birthday. A perplexing individual, experimenting with wild improvisations and unfamiliar instruments, it is his saxophone playing for which he remains most acclaimed, possessing a tone harsher than Ayler and a technique on par with Coltrane. Yet to listen to Abe is an experience quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard before. For one thing: culture. Abe’s music, while being technically “jazz,” is also strongly influenced by the music of his native Japan. On this set of solo performances for the alto sax, silence is often key, with gaps of almost a minute between bursts of dissonant horn honks. This unmelodious, almost percussion-like attack and treatment of his instrument is indicative of Japanese folk and classical music. There is no sense of time or rhythm or harmony or melody, just mere sketchings, vast empty spaces, unformed ideas sitting between the outbursts of what Abe wants to express at that time. The silence is often penetrating, tense and as alarmingly blunt as the moments when his horn screeches through the space like the cry of a murder victim, felled by the criminal’s dagger, echoing across the vast and bleak moors. After each blast, one can faintly detect the echo of what Abe has just played, somewhere far off in the distance, like a ghostly duet, an otherworldly, non-verbal communication between the living and the dead, the past and the present, of this world and the next. The communication between Abe and what’s he’s just played is important, taking cues, jumping onto new ideas, complimenting that sound, his mind constantly looking forward and back simultaneously. Often he’ll play a sustained note, wait for the echo and then play it again, creating the illusion of foresight, switching around the roles as if he is following the lead of the echo rather than the other way around. This deeply intelligent and spiritual sort of playing, this restraint and disciple gives this music a quality that escapes explanation.
Solo Live At Gaya, Volume 1 is like a sketchpad, presenting ideas in fragments, some more developed than others, but all going somewhere. And each of these ideas is deeply powerful, often disturbing and frequently harsh. This is not music for the faint hearted. Such naked aggression on a solo scale required your utmost attentiveness and demands more than just a lend of your ears. Merely listening to this will drive anyone mad: it’s about much more than that. Although I can’t know for certain, Abe’s sax playing seems to represent his inner turmoil, his depression and addictions and pains, and his channeling of these emotions into his playing. We hear each triumph and tragedy in his life, the anger and the struggle and so much more. It is, in fact, the perfect analogy. Although Abe’s playing implies a certain level of personal expression and tragedy, it nevertheless remains speculative, and only provides us with a brief picture of the artist at his most tortured and passionate. The inner workings of his mind and personal details remain a mystery: the fragments of music are clues towards revealing his inner self, yet some clues are missing. There is much to learn from his playing, but not everything. Abe puts up a wall, a shield, never revealing more than is necessary. Unlike the likes of Beethoven, whose entire inner being is projected through his Ninth Symphony, for example, Kaoru Abe’s music has the effect of reflecting his own personal abstruseness. We are offered a brief glimpse into some significant periods of his life and then shooed away. What he chooses to reveal in his music is as important as what he chooses to omit. Perhaps his method of projecting his emotional turmoil was a sort of coping mechanism… who knows. Due to his untimely death I think it’s safe to say much of his life will remain a mystery. Nevertheless, the glimpses into his life that we are offered on this disc are fascinating in their tragedy. Solo Live At Gaya, Volume 1 represents one small step towards unlocking the enigma of Kaoru Abe.
Words – Adam.