Stomu Yamash’ta and Masahiko Satō: Metempsychosis (Japan, 1971)
An idiom I repeat often in the world of records is, “when it rains, it pours.” It’s not uncommon for a dry spell of finding used records for the store to be followed by a bunch of collections coming all at once, sometimes more than we can handle or afford. This pattern also holds for individual titles. I can’t recall seeing an original pressing of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain before 2021, but we’ve had three copies this year. There was one point a few years ago when we had four Beatles butcher covers in stock at once, though we haven’t seen one since.
Lately the unseen hand that controls the vinyl taps seems to have turned the knob labeled “Japanese records for Daniel.” I’m sure anyone with a passing familiarity with the newsletter knows what a Japanophile I am, so I always have a healthy want list from that magical island, but things have been dropping in my lap lately. Even when I was in New York with Public Acid, we walked into a random record store that we passed on the street and I found an original pressing of Creation’s first album from 1975. So weird. I’m sure I’ll cover plenty of these records in future picks.
This 1971 album from Stomu Yamash’ta and Masahiko Satō was the record that opened the floodgates, and it’s one I had been after for a while. Metempsychosis is one of Julian Cope’s top 50 picks in his Japrocksampler book, but it’s one I had trouble learning about. I found Cope’s description of the album intriguing, but at the time I could only find short snippets online (the full album has since appeared on YouTube). The album hasn’t been repressed since 1976, and it seems like few copies made it to the West.
Metempsychosis intrigued me for several reasons. It seemed like one of the more avant-garde titles covered in Japrocksampler, and I liked that the drummer gets top billing. I love drum-centric jazz with dense polyrhythms, and fusing that with traditional Japanese percussion sounded like a wild idea. Stomu Yamash’ta (sometimes also Yamashita) also seemed like an interesting figure. He was only 24 when he recorded Metempsychosis, and was already a rising star in the jazz world. With his long hair and flowing robes he cut a memorable figure on stage (captured dynamically on Metempsychosis’s cover photo), and he was already considered one of the top percussionists in the world. The Japanese record industry was trying several tacks at making Yamash’ta a star, of which Metempsychosis was one. Yamash’ta has had a long and successful musical career, his most famous moment for Western listeners coming in the late 70s when he led the jazz fusion supergroup Go, which also featured Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola, Klaus Schulze, and Michael Shrieve.
The other name on the cover of Metempsychosis was also a huge draw for me. Like Dennis Bovell, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Masahiko Satō’s name (sometimes spelled Satoh) just keeps coming up. His soundtrack for the 1973 animated film Belladonna of Sadness is a record I return to again and again, and while its sound is grounded in Miles Davis’s work on records like Bitches Brew and Live Evil, there’s something about Satō’s take on that style that just gets me… maybe it’s how he takes those epic, stretched-out jams and compresses them down to scene-length bursts of creativity? Satō’s album with his project Soundbreakers, Amalgamation (also released in 1971), is another record from Cope’s Japrocksampler list that intrigued me, and getting a physical copy has been a highlight of this recent deluge of Japanese vinyl to hit my collection.
Satō serves as composer for Metempsychosis, so it seems relevant to share Satō’s bio on Apple Music, which I discovered last night:
Masahiko is a Chick Corea-influenced pianist who also plays electric keyboards. His compositional depth is not considered as strong as his playing.
What a diss! I couldn’t disagree more about Satō’s skills as a composer. On Metempsychosis and Amalgamation, Satō’s compositions remind me of Bill Dixon, another of my favorite avant-garde jazz composers (and the subject of another of my previous picks). Like Dixon, Satō takes influence from 20th-century classical composers like Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. Suspicious of conventional melody and harmony, Satō is fascinated by density and volume, often contrasting bursts of of loud horns creating dense, complex chords with long passages of near-silence. As with Bill Dixon’s records, you need to be mindful of where you set your volume knob when you listen to Satō’s work.
Circling back to Metempsychosis, it’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to hear: Satō’s orchestration and composition skills laced with lots of dense, complex percussive patterns. It’s a wild ride.
Researching this pick, I’ve also discovered a few other records I need to check out. Right now, I have Stomu Yamash’ta’s 1971 album Red Buddha playing on YouTube and I am intrigued. I also realized I didn’t talk about the artist who receives third billing on Metempsychosis, Toshiyuki Miyama & The New Herd. I see that group has a huge discography, and I’ve heard their 1970 collaboration with Masahiko Satō, Canto of Libra. 1971’s Canto of Aries, this time a collaboration with Masahiko Togashi, appears to be part of the same series and I’ve seen it mentioned in lists of notable Japanese jazz records. I also want to find a copy of Pianology, Masahiko Satō’s 1971 collaboration with the German pianist and composer Wolfgang Dauner. That record has been reissued a few times in recent years, but don’t often pop up in the US.