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In praise of Michiyo Yagi: Keeping the koto contemporary

by Frank Spignese

Special To The Japan Times

Koto player Michiyo Yagi is a national treasure like no other. Why she isn’t the most famous musician in all of Japan blows my feeble mind.

She’s a Japanese woman playing the koto — the most Japanese of Japanese musical instruments. She’s part of an ancient tradition, yet out on her own: unchained, untouched, unmatched. Every musician that has ever lived likes to spew the same staid “I can’t be pigeonholed” line, but Yagi truly lives outside the confines of any genre. She sometimes plays her instrument straight up, making listeners feel nostalgic for a time and country they’ve never known. At other times, she attacks it like Linda Blair double-possessed.

Her free-jazz collaborators have included some of the biggest names in the non-business (John Zorn, Fred Frith, Peter Brotzmann and Elliott Sharp among them). To say she helps keep the koto contemporary would be misleading. She doesn’t keep it contemporary; she travels into the future, digs it dead out of the dusty boneyard, and righteously resurrects it.

The first time I witnessed Yagi live was at an otherworldly duo performance at Roppongi’s Super Deluxe with the late, great New York violinist Billy Bang. Brother Bang (we miss you Billy!) and Yagi hit the proverbial roof together, a holy mess of madness that had all the hipsters forgetting to stroke their beards. Their collaboration was set up as a catalyst for avant-garde butoh dancer Taketeru Kudo, who flipped and flopped like an albino fish out of water, gasping for his very last breath. (He stepped on my feet twice and accidentally hit me in the head four times, but that’s what I get for sitting in the front row.) No sweat though, Yagi’s music can make a man lose himself.

A year or two later, I went to what is one of the greatest live shows my ears (and eyes) have ever witnessed. It was a trio date, featuring the greatest German that has ever lived: saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. Yagi and Brotzmann and drummer Tamaya Honda played a series of free-form sets that spanned oceans, cultures and spaceways. At Nishi-Ogikubo’s tiny Aketa no Mise (a basement “club” so sparse that you’d think you were in a Third World boiler-room) they ravaged the willing audience relentlessly. And no offense to Brotzmann, but it was Yagi that spurred the temper and the flare of the contour of the music that transpired that night. If getting punched in the face repeatedly was pleasurable, this is what it would have felt like.

I attended the gig with occasional Japan Times contributor, and Brooklyn-born jazz-encyclopedia, James Catchpole. A few times during the night, we both wet our pants. No shame in that. The bathroom was 2 meters away and we couldn’t be bothered to move. That’s life. Yagi’s music makes beer-swilling music fans lose control of their bladders.

Not all of her music is solely entrenched in the avant-garde, though. Check out Yagi’s excellent discs “Seventeen” and “Shizuku” for a taste of something more solemnly introspective, yet equally enticing. Or get her latest recording, “Dojo/Ichi no Maki,” which was voted best jazz album of the year by Music Magazine. Or, even better, check her out this Sunday at Yokohama Airegin where she will perform with British jazz percussionist Roger Turner (7:30 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in advance).

Michiyo Yagi is a national treasure. Whether you were born here, are just passing through, or stuck diligently flipping burgers at Roppongi’s T.G.I. Friday’s, her music has something to offer. A smart, yet not overly-academic reminder of the past, hip to the present and viciously pushing forward into the future.