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Music review: Takemitsu film score tribute in jazz at Samueli Theater

December 20, 2010 |  3:00 pm

It never took much to get Toru Takemitsu, the pioneering Japanese composer, drunk. A couple glasses of Scotch at a party after a concert could set him off on rambunctious descriptions of obscure Japanese science-fiction films. He knew them all, no matter how unbelievably cheesy.

He knew the classics too. Takemitsu’s love for movies was second to none. He said he averaged seeing almost one a day from around 1957 until his death at age 65 in 1996. He also scored, on average, two or three a year during that period, including many Japanese masterpieces. Four years ago, after a DVD version of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” was released, the musicologist Jan Swafford asked, with good cause, in an article on Slate, whether Takemitsu was the greatest film composer of all time. The late David Raksin, famed for his score of “Laura” and himself a great film composer, didn’t need to ask. He told me more than once that he considered “Ran” the greatest film score of all time.

JapanOC, the Philharmonic Society's celebration of Japan this season, began its music programs Sunday night with a tribute to Takemitsu in the Samueli Theater, the intimate venue of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The four musicians, led by jazz guitarist Kazumi Watanabe, all knew Takemitsu personally. The music consisted of arrangements for two guitars, accordion and percussion of numbers from 10 of the more than 100 Takemitsu film scores. The concert was conceived by Maki Takemitsu, the composer’s daughter.

A loving tribute this obviously was and one that showed a perhaps less well-known side of Takemitsu, whose considerable contribution to 20th century concert music was an intoxicating, original and unforgettable brew of Debussy, Messiaen, John Cage and traditional Japanese court music. Takemitsu’s film music could be otherworldly, Bachian, gagaku and many other things (sometimes all in the same scene).

But some of it was pop, all kinds of pop, and Sunday’s concert focused on what would suit jazz musicians. Watanabe is a a refined and swinging improviser. Daisuke Suzuki, a superb young classical guitarist with a flair for crossover, was a lyric foil for Watanabe and also contributed cogent rhythm guitar. The accordionist Yasuhiro Kobayashi, who goes under the name coba, is a character; sentimental and assertive, he knows how to surprise. Tomohiro Yahiro is a versatile percussionist, in rock and jazz.

The numbers stood on their own. The alluring title from Kurosawa’s “Dodes’ka-den” might have suited a spaghetti western and coba's solos were touching. But the tune is altogether heartbreaking on screen, representing the fantasy world of a troubled boy with a trolley car fetish.

The sweet acoustic guitar interplay in a selection from Hideo Onchi’s “Izu Dancer” was like liquid Italian Baroque. Koh Nakahira’s ‘50s teenage coming-of-age drama “Crazed Fruit” was potently bluesy.  The first of three “Folios," played by Suzuki, was overamplified. Watanabe’s “Dice,” a duet for guitar and percussion, was dedicated to Takemitsu and featured hard-hitting improvisation.     

Though a winning concert, nothing in it really demonstrated what made Takemitsu a great composer. JapanOC is a collaboration with Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC, which got underway last week with this jazz program as one part of several other Takemitsu events, including the screening of more than 20 films.

Susumu Hani’s “Bad Boys,” Masaki Kobayashi’s “Hymn to a Tired Man,” Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Jose Torres,” Masahiro Shinoda’s “Sharaku” or Kon Ichikawa’s “Alone on the Pacific” were five more rarities by important directors that provided juicy material for Sunday’s program. They're not on domestic DVD nor are they films you'll easily find screened here on the Pacific Rim and at the so-called movie capital of the world.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: from left to right, Kazumi Watanabe, Tomohiro Yahiro, Daisuke Suzuki, coba at the Samueli Theater Sunday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times