Mixing two different elements together sometimes doesn’t work. Let alone simple things like different natural materials, two different people can’t always be expected to work as a pair. In the instance of Masaki Hayashi and Seigen Tokuzawa, however, that difficulty somehow fizzles away, leaving only a seamless working relationship.
On “Drift,” the duo display more than a decade of working together. Though it is a traditionally classical pairing of piano, played by Hayashi, with Tokuzawa’s cello, the results are not moored in any particular port of call; instead, true to the album’s name, the music drifts.
Which is just what Tokuzawa, 43, says he intended when asked about the overarching feel of the album.
“It’s just the same meaning as the title,” he says. “Drifting in the sea, in the water, in the air, in the inside, in a parallel world.”
For the album to be such a seemingly carefree work of art almost doesn’t make sense. Tokuzawa and Hayashi met more than a decade ago while playing in Latin-infused jazz ensemble Naruyoshi Kikuchi y Pepe Tormento Azucarar (which provided the soundtrack for 2012’s “Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine” animated film).
“The band was progressive with polyrhythms, full of emotion and very difficult to play,” Tokuzawa says. “He (Hayashi) swam freely in the song, like a dolphin! I was simply dumbfounded.”
Likewise, Hayashi, 41, calls Tokuzawa’s performance in the ensemble “impressive.”
It was to be the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 (“sadly,” says Tokuzawa) that saw the start of their musical experience.
“On Feb. 27, 2011, just before the earthquake, we had a concert in the lobby of the Nerima Art Museum (in Tokyo),” says Hayashi. “It was a very good performance.”
Immediately following the devastating quake — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and, according to the World Bank, the world’s costliest natural disaster — Tokuzawa composed a track, on which Hayashi played, for charity album “moss.”
The brainchild of Japanese label Cote Labo, the album was donated to an “independent music shop in Sendai in the stricken area so that people there could listen to it at all times,” according to the label’s description of the album.
“We hope that the people at the stricken area can sleep being relieved and relaxed by this album,” the label said.
Recorded at Nerima Art Museum, Tokuzawa’s track, “tsugi hug e,” is a simple, cyclical tragedy of sound with aching strains of cello that culminate in a rich crescendo in which Hayashi’s piano crashes and glitters: a poignant piece of music that is as brooding and tearful as it is explosive. It was at this moment that the duo truly came together.
“At that time I could feel for the first time the connection between his deep musicality and my own heart,” says Hayashi. “I think the duo project really started here.”
On paper, however, the two artists seem wildly at odds with each other.
Tokuzawa’s classical background includes composing music for television documentaries and news segments, along with a contribution to the soundtrack for Nintendo Wii Switch video game “Splatoon” in 2015.
Hayashi, on the other hand, has his roots in contributing to a stable of big names. He began joining Takio Ito & Takio Band on its 1997 South American tour and has since played as a session musician for Kiyoshi Hasegawa, Ringo Sheena, Lisa Ono and Sadao Watanabe, as well as outfits like Blue Note Tokyo All-Star Jazz Orchestra.
Both have their own bands. Hayashi’s Ma o Kanaderu, a jazzy, post-bebop troupe, released its second outing in 2018; meanwhile, Tokuzawa heads up anonymass, an indie-pop trio leaning more toward minimal toy sounds and experimental flavors.
But despite those differences, it all works.
Tokuzawa is quick to remove the sort of boxes that press releases make for musicians, who are often quoted as being this or that at the behest of media outlets hungry for digestible stories. For him, it seems, things are never quite that simple.
“I grew up listening to a variety of music, not just classical music,” he says. “Hayashi also has a deep background. I feel that the musical roots are not important, but he has the same rhythm of ‘the roots of soul.’”
Indeed, the first two tracks on the album — “Elect” and “Einstein Effect” — illustrate these “roots of the soul” that Tokuzawa talks about. On “Elect,” Hayashi’s piano is atmospheric and miasmic, allowing Tokuzawa’s cello to scream and shout, unearthly and virtuosic; the gravely “Einstein Effect,” however, features a rhythmic low piano keeping time with Tokuzawa rapping on the cello’s body, every now and then a gleaming flourish of piano splashing in the soundscape, like a pebble thrown into a still pond.
What these two tracks show, essentially, is knowing when not to do things as much as knowing when to do things — a musical kūki o yomu (reading the air) that ensures harmony in the sound.
“The duo is ‘conversation’ itself,” confirms Tokuzawa. “It is always ‘conversation.’”
Citing his own background, Hayashi confirms that he picked up experience along the way that led to the seamless zeal and dynamism that make “Drift” as interesting to listen to as it is exciting.
“I’ve got a lot of musical essences from big names, and one of the important things is the attitude for playing music,” he says. “It’s important to respect each other. If there are different parts from my thoughts, some parts do not yield, and some parts completely follow the opponent’s ideas.”
Hayashi says Tokuzawa’s cello tone and his piano tone mix well.
“I like to play along with the music, and I think Seigen also likes to improvise,” he says. “I hope that we can share the musicality of each other through performances.”
It seems that the two minds that have created “Drift” are a well-made match. Alongside both confessing a respect for the other’s craft, and both being genuinely talented and experienced musicians, there is a desire to create something new in spite — or perhaps because of — their differing backgrounds.
“I think creating a new style is synonymous with exploring the roots,” Tokuzawa says.
These “roots” extend to the likes and dislikes of the duo as a whole. Take the cover songs, for example: “Venus in Furs” (The Velvet Underground), made into sensuous sound by the duo, and the galloping, fresh idyll of “Iambic 9 Poetry” (Squarepusher) showcase a varied, but clearly shared, taste in musical aesthetics.
Taking care to treat negative space as well as sound itself, and drawing on their skills and experiences, Hayashi and Tokuzawa have created a modern masterpiece in “Drift.” It is neither post-classical, nor ambient or experimental: It is instead the genreless result of two free minds who, combining their differences, are greater than the sum of their parts.
“Drift” will be released on March 4. For more information, visit flau.jp/releases/drift.
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