Shimizu takes sax to Bach’s ‘Goldberg’

by Yung-hsiang Kao

In the center of a large practice room at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo sits tenor saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, instrument at his lips, legs crossed, playing along with four other saxophonists. It looks like a scene from a music class: the graying, 55-year-old teacher instructing his younger students. The three men and one woman look like they are having fun, conversing with Shimizu about the music even as he points out some mistakes or urges them to try a different tempo or phrasing.

It is one month before the world premiere of Shimizu’s arrangement of the “Goldberg Variations,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s aria and 30 variations of it written in 1742 for harpsichord, famously recorded by the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in 1955. Shimizu will also have four contrabass on stage with him for the performance, part of the Triphony Hall Goldberg Variations series that began in 2006 and has so far mainly featured solo pianists.

This is not Shimizu’s first time to rearrange Bach. In 1997, he recorded Bach compositions, including the “Goldberg” aria, while adding electronically treated voices with sine-wave signals from an oscillator. A year before that, he released “Cello Suites 1.2.3″ under his Yasuaki Shimizu & Saxophonettes incarnation. The “band” was just Shimizu himself, a one-man act he created in 1983. By improvising Bach with his tenor saxophone, he created something hard to label as classical, jazz, or any other genre. “Cello Suites 4.5.6″ followed in 1999 under the same theme and completed his recording of all six Bach Cello Suites.

“I wouldn’t say I’m well-acquainted with Bach,” Shimizu says, “but Bach’s music matches me.”

He performed the Cello Suites at Sumida Triphony Hall in 2000. Instead of Shimizu alone on stage, eight experienced saxophonists joined him, leading to the realization of the Saxophonettes as a group. The current four young saxophonists in Shimizu’s group were recommended by these veteran musicians. As this quintet, Yasuaki Shimizu & Saxophonettes released “Pentatonica” in 2007, an album featuring pentatonic scales with Japanese and Ethiopian music.

“Because of the success of the Cello Suites (both when recorded and in live performances), I had the chance to do the ‘Goldberg Variations,’ ” Shimizu says.

However, the Cello Suites are just one aspect in a long and varied career. From releasing his first solo album in 1978 to starting the rock band Mariah in 1980, to composing for films, such as Hiroshi Matsumoto’s “Symbol” from 2009 and the rerelease of the 1925 silent film “Orochi” two years ago, and working with African vocalists, musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, DJ Towa Tei and the like, Shimizu is less a chameleon blending into the environment than a modern musical renaissance man, dabbling and excelling across genres and boundaries, whatever they may be.

These boundaries are not just metaphysical. Shimizu is interested in physical spaces. His “Cello Suites” were recorded in various environments, for example, a stone quarry in Tochigi Prefecture or a palazzo in Padua, Italy. His Bach-Saxophone-Space concert series had him performing at temples and underground parking lots.

“The saxophone’s interaction with space, in this case the concert hall, is part of my concept, the reflection of the sound against the walls, and this hall (Triphony Hall) is excellent for the saxophone,” Shimizu says.

“The contrabass gives an emotive, deeper sound that fits the hall and the bass melody is the same throughout each variation,” Shimizu adds. “Another reason I want to use the contrabass is it looks very cool on stage.”

Ideally, Shimizu wants listeners to experience an “empty-your-mind feeling.”

Shimizu says that even today he would want to attend a concert like the 1994 Great Music Experience event, where Joni Mitchell, Ry Cooder and other musicians performed while monks chanted in front of Todaiji Temple in Nara. Shimizu hasn’t really thought about collaborations with other artists in the near future. He admits that most of the artists he listens to are dead, such as Gould.

“Well, Gould’s version of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ is the one I listen to most,” Shimizu says. “His version is another level. His approach level is different.”

As for his own version of the “Goldberg Variations,” Shimizu has many surprises in store for listeners.

“Many people have played the ‘Goldberg’ and usually transpose the music for their instrument, without much arranging. Generally, they play it the way Bach originally wrote it. For my version, I add different, new melodies, take out other melodies, and do various alterations, actually.”

He attributes his willingness to break the mold, to go beyond limitations, to his way of thinking about Japan.

“Japan is a very interesting country. Why do I say this? There are many delicious foods and sweets in Japan,” he begins, cracking a laugh though he means what he says, “and on the surface there are many beneficial cultural aspects found only in Japan.

“Growing up after World War II — I was born in 1954 — in the midst of a fast, strong wave, when many influences and incidents occurred in Japan, of course, it influenced me and had various effects on me. But I find myself looking back and asking: ‘Why? Why did it happen to me?’ There is always a question mark in my head, this questioning atmosphere. Maybe not everyone has these question marks. It’s not good or bad. But people tend to accept things as given, which must seem unbelievable for people from other countries.”

Shimizu’s introspection leads him to search for more than what is given.

“I want to take in the new, take what is interesting and produce interesting results. For example, regarding these Bach pieces, I have a diverse, multifaceted approach. Now, I play Bach in my own way, my style. If people in Germany listen to my music, they will say, ‘This is not real Bach.’

“If people find my interpretation of Bach, of German classical music to be strange or interesting, then I think to myself, yes, I’ve done something good.”

Yasuaki Shimizu & Saxophonettes play Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at Tokyo’s Sumida Triphony Hall on Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. For more information, call (03) 5608-1212 or visit www.triphony.com or www.yasuaki-shimizu.com