Ryuichi Sakamoto is a musician from Tokyo. Beyond that, he could just as confidently be labeled: activist, actor, producer, composer, pianist.
But the focus here is one distinctive stretch of Sakamoto’s intriguing career, one that produced a luscious, lush, thumping string of recordings in the Nineties. Prior to that stretch, Sakamoto’s musical endeavors as a solo performer were more straightforwardly experimental, and after it, mostly as a composer and performer of piano-centric chamber music and film scores.
But in between, he created five consecutive albums of adventurous pop incorporating disco, jazz, electronica, traditional Japanese, house/dance, classical and Bacharach-inspired pop confection.
The first of these for me was Beauty, apply titled, and musically heterogeneous in the most enthralling way. You know you’re in a musically exotic land with the first notes of ‘You Do Me’. It’s electronic funk embellished with traditional Japanese string and percussion instruments, with lyrics in English, then Japanese. Among other highlights are the gorgeous ballad, ‘Rose’ also sung in English and Japanese, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ a joyous melody rendered with simplicity, a male/female duet over a plucked Japanese banjo and strings. The melody of ‘Romance’ sounds Eastern, but the song is a house/dance number. ‘Chinsague No Hana’ which ends the album is beautifully elegiac and minimalistic, with its insistent plucked Japanese zither, soft percussion and quiet, electronic strings.
The other albums mix the same ingredients and a few more, though what is weighted in the mix varies from one to the other. Neo Geo is more of a funky rocker, with avant-garde touches, employing master funksters Bill Laswell and Bootsy Collins. Throw in Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, reggae rhythm man Sly Dunbar, and Iggy Pop and you’ve got yourself some beguiling ecstasy.
Heartbeat is jazzier, poppier, hip-hoppier, more romantic and upbeat. Sweet Revenge has a lounge vibe, and Smoochy mixes funk electronica, Bossa Nova, pop melodicism and Traditional Japanese in a heady, spellbinding, lilting brew. Added to those mentioned earlier, collaborators on these albums include: Brian Wilson, Robert Wyatt, Robbie Robertson, David Byrne, Arto Lindsay, Youssou N’Dour, David Sylvain. DJ Towa Towa and Dmitri.
This is the tip of the iceberg of Sakamoto’s creativity of course. His early work with Yellow Magic Orchestra is compelling, and his later classical forays with piano and stings are delicate and beautiful. His scores, for films such as The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The Last Emperor, Wild Palms and High Heels are distinctive.
Indeed, this classical pianist, rocker, synth-pop world music guy, disco dude, electronica frontiersman and film composer is a world-class innovator. But more importantly, he’s the creator of some insanely delicious music, music whose appeal only grows with time and repeated listening.