Andy Akiho: Topnotch Pop Tunesmith In Disguise
Andy Akiho may be most closely associated with indie classical music, but underneath the cleverly shapeshifting arrangements on his new album No One to Know One beats the heart of a great pop tunesmith. Atonality may be all the rage (when, since about 1918, has it NOT been all the rage?) but this guy is all about melody. He has a long career in film scores staring him in the face if he wants it. The span from style to style on this record is a long and constantly unexpected one: bits of Middle Eastern music, reggae, noir jazz, Japanese folk songs and brooding 80s pop along with the bright, ringing soca tonalities you would expect from a composer whose axe is the steel pan. It’s a triumphant blend of cutting-edge creativity and accessibility.
The first six tracks here are from his Synesthesia Suite, and are color-coded (Akiho experiences specific pitches as colors). Hadairo (Beige) is the LAST thing you would expect beige to be – it inspired a bright, rhythmic, Balkan-tinged dance with a pointillistic bass solo, a potently dark interlude where the string section mimics the pans and then launches into a series of clever false endings (Akiho has a great wit and employs it generously here). Kiiro (Yellow) begins with a suspenseful music-box vibe enhanced by Maura Valenti’s harp, builds to carnivalesquely orchestrated atonalities and then a creepy waltz that takes on some jarring polyrhythms. Murasaki (Purple) alternates brooding reggae with shimmery glissandos from the harp and pans; Aka (Red) is the weak link here, although it could have been a massive pop hit back in the 80s – think Lisa Lisa or the”La-da-dee, La-da-da” song. Karakurenai (Crimson), a piece for solo prepared steel pan (with certain areas magnetized to shift the pitch downward) half-conceals what sounds like an old Japanese folk song amidst loopy atmospherics and accelerating polyrhythms. The last of the colors here is Daidai Iro (Orange), a trio piece for Akiho with bassist Samuel Adams and drummer Kenneth Salters, revisiting the pop undertone of Red but without the cloying 80s vibe.
The centerpiece here is to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem (read the toggle for subtext), a richly cinematic noir suite complete with simulated sirens and several chase scenes. It’s literally a movie for the ears: furtive polyrhythms, temporary respite at a safe house, strings rising and then screeching apprehensively and flurries of high woodwinds balanced against a relentless march and an ending which is pure menace. It was the hit of the Bang on a Can Marathon in 2008 and is just as much a showstopper here.
By contrast, The Ray’s End, a trio piece for pan, trumpet and violin juxtaposes a wary chromatic vamp with hypnotic ambience punctuated by Akiho’s judiciously spacious pan accents. NO one To kNOW one (read the toggle again) is another suspense movie, this one set in a disco invaded by Ian Rosenbaum’s vibraphone assault (he plays this one with chopsticks) and later an apprehensive, Middle Eastern-flavored dialogue between Akiho and Mariel Roberts’ cello. There’s a LOL-funny Beatles quote a little later on that’s too good to give away here. The album ends with 21, just pan and cello building loops that venture tensely into a thicket of interwoven melody and textural contrasts. These are just the highlights: to really enjoy all the entertainment this album has to offer, you need headphones and time alone. It’s out now on Innova.
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