First Meeting - Ronin Arkestra (EP Review)
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
22 March 2019
Album Rating 3.5 / 5
Live Potential 4 / 5
Solo Performances 4.5 / 5
Diversity in Songs 3 / 5
Favourite Songs A Love Supreme, Stranger Searching
Ronin Arkestra’s First Meeting is a fine introduction to their combination of Japanese jazz and electronica. Their debut EP confidently demonstrates the group’s ethos through an impressive display of solo performances.
The group formed in Tokyo in 2017 as part of band leader Mark de Clive-Lowe’s (Mark de Clive-Lowe, Harvey Mason, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Dwight Trible) exploration of his ancestral heritage in Japan, which is the basis of recent albums Heritage and Heritage II. With Japanese at it's core, MdCL decided to create music with some of Japan’s renowned musicians who hail from projects such as WONK, Cro-Magnon, Root Soul, Sleepwalker and Kyoto Jazz Massive.
The message of group is described on their Bandcamp page, as they liken themselves to the role a sunflower has in nature. Essentially, each musician in the group is a Ronin (a samurai without a master) who with their own expertise can complement each other to create a balance and harmony to the group’s sound which they recorded in their sessions at Red Bull Studios together.
In an interview with Supreme Standards, MdCL states “it was pretty much one and a half days in studio and we were done […] the vibe was so on point from the first meeting that I knew we had something special”. With no concrete notions or plans for the sessions, it’s remarkable what they have created the work in such a short amount of time and leaving it as it happened naturally during those one and a half days. The result is on the whole a positive one.
The first track ‘Stranger Searching’ shimmers with cymbals and chimes from Hikaru Arata (WONK, Tsubaki, ISSUGI, IO) and Nobuaki Fuji (Sleepwalker) on the drums and percussion, creating a long atmospheric buildup. Wataru Hamasaki (Harvey Mason) and Kohei Ando on saxophone, and Ruike Shinpei (Kyoto Jazz Sextet, DCPRG) on trumpet tease the listener with their instruments in this section before a constant groove from the drums provides some backbone to the song. On top of the comping going on, the main riff finally comes through and blossoms as the horns sync together before alternating to a hip-hop beat, a nice addition to the song which brings it to an enjoyable end.
‘Redeye Reprisal’ is named after an episode from the anime series ‘Samurai Champloo’, where two Ronin go through a series of wide-ranging adventures. The song replicates these changing adventures by moving between blaring horns at the start to mellower rhythms, which also showcases particularly nice production by Sauce81 and piano playing from MdCL.
The only track that had forethought before the group’s sessions together is ‘The Silk Road Prelude’ as it builds on MdCL’s own track ‘The Silk Road’ on Heritage II. The song begins with an atmospheric buildup which is again pushed by the horns which are nicely manipulated by Sauce81’s production elements. The guitar solo by Tsuyoshi Kosuga (Cro-Magnon, Root Soul) is very delicate amongst the surrounding comping from the horns and Fuji’s drums, but deserves a louder dynamic range to propel the song further – perhaps the solo would fit better in the outro instead where the song is softer and subtler.
The cover of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ is the highlight of the album as this dedication to the jazz legend is very inventive in an almost break-beat style. Sauce81 ensures the drums move from electronic to acoustic tones effortlessly whilst Kobayashi Shinju’s bass really amplifies the drum patterns perfectly; this is matched by the horns that soar throughout.
Whilst there are sections in ‘Stranger Searching’ and ‘The Silk Road Prelude’ that really stretch out the length of comping unnecessarily, the main riffs provide a snapshot of the group’s undoubted talent to perform together once they reach those sections. The soloing is exciting amongst the backdrop of the production elements and should be encouraged in live performances, but for First Meeting there are moments where a concise and refined approach would help bring these songs to life.
Having said that, the enthusiasm from their "first meeting" to record this EP has been fruitful enough to move forward and release a full album in September of this year; hopefully this will build upon the fantastic relationship they have with each other and through playing more, cultivate a succinct sound that will really drive themselves from Japan to the rest of the jazz world.
Mark de Clive-Lowe – Piano, Keys; Sauce81 - Synth, Production; Tsuyoshi Kosuga – Guitar; Hikaru Arata – Drums, Percussion (Tracks 1-3); Kobayashi Shinju – Bass; Nobuaki Fuji – Drums, Percussion; Wataru Hamasaki – Saxophone, Flute; Ruike Shinpei – Trumpet; Kohei Ando – Saxophone.