Originally released in 2001, Fisherman’s.com is Japanese free-jazz stalwart Akira Sakata’s ode to folksongs of the sea, reimagined and repurposed as seeds for avant distortions. Featuring Sakata on alto saxophone and vocals, Bill Laswell on bass, Pete Cosey on guitar, and Hamid Drake on drums, it’s an intensely personal statement on the fluidity of tradition.
“Kaigarabushi” opens with a fisherman’s song from the region of Tottori in western Japan. Sakata’s singing of it has a mineral quality that will taste familiar to admirers of Mikami Kan. Like a blind minstrel who feeds only the ears of ghosts longing to relive their exploits, he touches listeners from temporal distances. The band at his side sets up a row of large beakers, each filled to brimming with funk. Yet while Laswell and Drake are precisely measured, Cosey stirs up an amorphous mixture of colors through the flange of his talking guitar. His sound bleeds out the smallest facets of Sakata’s singing, and finds in their reimbursement an alluring style of damage. So, too, does the bandleader’s reed work pour on strange beauty.
“Ondo no funauta” sets out on more troubled waters before bass and drums drop an anchor of groove, while Cosey’s fins move in more mysterious ways below depths. By no coincidence, the song tells of boatmen handling a particularly treacherous strait in Hiroshima Prefecture, though one might never know those challenges for the skill with which the band navigates them. Neither does Sakata’s saxophone betray one wave of that treachery, as it emotes without fear, and blasts the surety of their experience beyond the ultimate fallibility of their technology.
“Saitarabushi” (incorrectly Romanized as “Saitarobushi”), another fishing song, also made an appearance on Sakata’s 1997 trio album, Dō deshō?! (How’s That?!). Here is the fruit of dangerous labors, the celebration a big catch with due ceremony. Sakata is soulful as ever over the band’s shoreline backdrop, even as Cosey portals in some modal ghost signatures of those who drowned long so. Laswell is thick and thin by turns, imprinting the sand but flying off with a harmonic in the same breath.
“Wakare no ippon sugi,” a ballad from the 1950s that clinched singer Hachirō Kasuga’s status as a pioneer of the Japanese enka form, is barely recognizable through Sakata’s filter—no small feat for such a famous tune. The forlorn lyrics tell of love lost under a cedar tree, a parting so sad that even the birds cry in the mountains. Not that a non-Japanese speaker would know this, given the upbeat presentation. All of which makes Sakata’s cries through the reed, and the guttural exhale with which he ends the album, that much more cathartic and emotionally relevant.
From this archival trove comes Bill Laswell’s remix of “Kaigarabushi,” which holds fast to its original drone but pencils in hues of Mongolian throat singing and faraway percussion. Cosey’s guitar is reborn as a long stare into the sun, while Sakata’s voice reaches for even farther stars, his saxophone strangling them until they gasp for darkness. The funk returns intermittently, only to fall into the earthly ooze from which it sprang.