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"Mahoroba" by Josh Smith is a successful recording as much for what it doesn't do as for what it does. The modern shakuhachi player faces many challenges when recording CD's and there are pitfalls awaiting people who may be good shakuhachi students or even masters, but undeveloped artists. Josh elegantly sidesteps most of these snafus with a strong set of original songs supplemented by a few honkyoku.
One thing some people forget when making solo shakuhachi CD's is that someone might actually listen to it. This may be stating the obvious but we still end up with a lot of half-baked recordings with only one length of flute, one reverb, renditions of songs that have been done to death and by better players, or CD's which are more like a graduation project than an offering to potential listeners. "Maharoba" is instead well rounded and diverse. Songs flow smoothly and coherently from one to the other. Contrast is introduced by use of different lengths and styles of flute (jinashi and jiari) as well as different reverberant environments. The general impression one gets from listening to this music is that of calm reflection, austerity and sparseness. Josh uses ma and wabi sabi well here, stating his ideas simply, developing but not over-developing them and then resolving things before the listener says "enough already".
I don't know what, if any, musical experience Josh has other than shakuhachi, or what his composition training is, but here he has constructed some personal melodies and concepts which are strong enough to warrant performances by other players.
"Shinroku" is a mournful neo-honkyoku piece which relies upon common honkyoku phrases and techniques as building blocks. The melody starts out slowly and builds up some steam, while incorporating a lot of space. Tone is authoritative with tasteful use of muraiki. "Asuka Reibo", played here on a short flute, is the piece on the CD which perhaps shows the most obvious technique and playing skill. Fast paced and energetic, the impression is similar to that of Yokoyama's renditions of "Kumoijishi" and "Azuma no Kyoku". "Taima Renzo", another Smith original has a relaxed but definite tempo and conveys the feeling of walking meditation. I could imagine playing this while slowly walking around in a temple or on a wooded path. "The Moon Over Yamato" is a deconstruction of and then theme and variations upon the "Kojo no Tsuki" melody played by all shakuhachi players. Here Josh personalizes it in a respectful but fun way. "Shingetsu-Yamato Choshi" is the rawest performance on the CD, taking advantage of the complex wave forms produced by a long jinashi. Again Josh shows great restraint, not bowing to the pressure of "showing off" in favor of a measured and mature rendition. "Asuka no Yugure" may have been inspired by Josh's surroundings in Japan, but to me it echoes certain John Coltrane melodies and has a pronounced blues feel. Somewhat Western to my ears, but a solid solo shakuhachi composition. "Flute Playing in the Deep Forest" takes Josh's compositional approach a bit closer to shinkyoku than the minyo and honkyoku that seems to inform most of the tunes here. There is an implied call and response feel and several playful melodies bouncing around. "The Tengu Goblins of Kasuragi" is a programmatic piece narrated by Nakajima Tama, based upon one of the local legends of Josh's neighborhood in Japan. Here the shakuhachi is used mainly for coloristic effects in support of the text. Next up is "Maharoba no Hime", a high pitched and simple melody interspersed with various trills, kara-kara and other shakuhachi-specific techniques. Many of us study and play "Takiochi". It's deceptively simple but seldom performed well because the level of concentration required to play it is high. Josh pulls it off calmly, with an added touch of waterfall noise to start the recording. "A Far Away Place" starts with some abstract exploration of harmonics and moves into a melody featuring fairly large intervals and some interesting rising and dropping of the pitches. "The Sound of the Lotus" is another simple original melody reminiscent of minyo or certain Shimpo-ryu tunes. "The Guiding Kannon" is in the ritualistic vein of honkyoku with judicious use of komi-buki. "From the Place of the Mandala" is a straightforward melody vacillating between otsu and kan. The album wraps up with "Crimson Sky" which is a jam between Josh on shakuhachi and Toshihiro Yuta on tone drum. Yuta creates a fluid backdrop for Josh's improvisation, which consists of a number of variations on a few short phrases.
For me "Mahoroba" is a success because it combines the Japanese training and discipline Josh underwent in both music and spirituality with his own personal expression in a holistic fashion. The album tends toward simplicity and calm, beautiful sounds and melodies. In fact it is highly melodic in a way that most shakuhachi CD's are not as a result of Josh's compositional tendency towards clear development and sticking to the basics. For the most part this album is about the music and the connection Josh feels with his surroundings in Japan, not about showing off what the shakuhachi can do. Josh has formidable shakuhachi technique but usually keeps it in reserve here. We all hope that shakuhachi practice dissolves the ego, maybe there is evidence in this case.
The recording itself has a variety of different sounds between songs, particularly in terms of reverb. As a shakuhachi aficionado I might think there's too much reverb on some tracks but to the casual listener it does not harm the listening experience. I think it's one of the more successful shakuhachi recordings from a modern player versed in traditional forms and techniques.
Thanks for the nice review, Tairaku. It makes me quite interested in having a listen to this recording.
Thanks for the great review Brian Just to clarify, the title is "Mahoroba". I just stayed with the Japanese name because I couldn't find a fitting English equivalent. There's a little explanation in the liners.
Hey Dan, the CD can be purchased via paypal here:
http://www.grand-island-serene-gardens. … oroba.html
and I have a few other songs from the CD I made with Japanese garden video collages here and there also. Here is one: