This was the first record by Kaoru Abe I ever heard, and from what I can tell it was among the very last recordings he ever made. Barely ten days after this concert, Abe was dead at the age of twenty-nine, a drug casualty — and by all accounts the fact he’d overdosed himself into an early grave was no surprise to anyone who knew him. I don’t hold to the theory that everyone possessed of a fierce creative energy is simultaneously practicing a form of slow self-immolation that may eventually turn out to be a rehearsal for the real thing, but the exceptions, like Abe, cloud our senses to any other possibility if only because they burned so very brightly indeed.
I listened to Last Date for the first time in the middle of the night, at a time when I was in poor spirits and felt like any human contact would only make things worse. Last Date had ended up in my collection after one of my forays through JustTheDisc.com, since the name “Kaoru Abe” was peripherally familiar from my other forays into both free jazz and Japan’s noise underground. Funny how his name turned up in both circles, but at the same time not odd at all: I’ve written before how the distance between something like Coltrane’s “Ascension” and your average Merzbow track is not that far. So I threw the album on, and before long I found myself gripping the sides of my chair and being overwhelmed with a sense of intimacy that I think only Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing has also been able to evoke. Listening to the album was like getting a letter from a dead friend and knowing you could never, ever write back.
Last Date was recorded in a club named Machikado in Sapporo, and from the way the record sounds I would have been surprised if barely a dozen people were crammed into a space not much bigger than my living room. Maybe even smaller. Over the course of about seventy minutes, Abe improvised on three instruments — alto saxophone, acoustic guitar, harmonica — with long stretches of silence and breathing room interspersed between blurts of music. Sometimes he slowed down so much he barely seemed to be doing anything at all, the way many classical Japanese musicians would use silence and the reverberation of the performance space as an instrument in itself.
Abe’s alto sax was his main instrument, and judging from notes left by others (mainly Eugene Chadbourne on the Allmusic.com site), he was regarded as having dissipated his talent when he played most anything else. To come in at the end of Abe’s career and hear him attack those instruments with the same uninhibited gusto that he used on his sax seems less like self-indulgence to me and more like an act of creative fearlessness. But it was the sax that he was best known for, and for good reason: he played it with such omnivorous abandon that I’m not sure he could have sustained such energy for the length of a full-blown career. Even Coltrane died relatively young — although not before recording a body of work that spanned the gamut from the friendly and accessible Lush Life to the soaring ferocity of his Live in Japan recordings.
A big part of what drives people away from free jazz or much music of its ilk is how, on the face of it, it’s impossible to tell the difference between truly brilliant playing and self-indulgent garbage. I was superficially enamored of Keith Jarrett (his Köln Concert is still a favorite of mine) until I listened to a good deal of his other recordings. For every one good record he put out, he released two mediocre ones and three more that were the kind of circular noodling that gave most of this music a bad name to begin with. That was the other problem: his improvising was an end in itself, and so many good ideas went underdeveloped and lived side-by-side with the most crashingly banal Muzak (cf: Invocations / The Moth and the Flame).
If Abe had one thing to his advantage, based on this disc, it was that he wasn’t trying to please anyone. Half the time he doesn’t even seem to be able to please himself, going by the rate with which he takes up, tears through and abandons one motif / instrumental manipulation after another. The sax segment goes through several false starts and dead ends (which have the added effect of emphasizing how Abe uses silence and space) before finally rearing its head for real. If Coltrane was playing “sheets of sound”, Abe is more pointillist and punctuative — the way he pauses, breathes, lets his phrases sink in a bit before tearing into the next one means each element has that much more impact.
The guitar improvisation reminds me of a story Lester Bangs used to tell about a guy who wandered into a jazz club off the street, offered to sit in on bass, and played the instrument with so little inhibition or preconception (they were convinced he didn’t even know how to hold it) that he seemed like he might be a natural as a free-jazz performer. Some soupçon of the same saintly madness seems to have taken up residence in Abe: he plucked, scratched, scraped, plinked, slapped and knocked the guitar like he was trying to dislodge a spirit resident in it.
I almost didn’t listen to the harmonica segment, if only because I have a totally irrational dislike for the instrument (one probably borne more from too many bad country-and-western records than anything else). But Abe’s playing won me over: he put texture and subtlety into his performance with an instrument that’s not known for being terribly versatile. I was reminded, if only in a minor fashion, of Keiji Haino’s electrifying solo album where he used the hurdy-gurdy, of all instruments, to create a piping drone that complemented his operatic vocals.
Working through Abe’s catalog is bound to be a curious experience after this record. I have on hand one other album of his that I plan to look at shortly — Kaitai Teki Kohkan, a joint session with the equally-fierce guitar improviser Masayuki Takayanagi where Abe plays sax, clarinet and harmonica. That was recorded back in 1970, so on the basis of chronology alone it’s bound to be a wholly different experience.
What I am struck most by, again, is the way the record made the emptiness of the room (and house) I was in suddenly feel populated by a new presence. Long after the album had finished playing, I walked from room to room feeling as though at any moment I might turn a corner and find the man there, still perched on his stool, fumbling with his next instrument and preparing to play something that would, once again, at first merge with and then keep at bay the stillness of the night streets outside. It might still be dark out — but at least in here, for now, there were a few lights that burned so very brightly indeed.