Album Review of
Sushi & Gravy

Written by Joe Ross
April 24, 2014 - 12:00am EDT
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As a young "navy brat" growing up in Japan, I often discovered such cross-cultural delicacies as gravy rice, curry rice, squid pizza, or french fries with gravy. "Sushi & Gravy," however, is one item I never concocted, but it was only a matter of time before someone mixed up an appetizing batch. Leave it to shamisen-player Takeharu Kunimoto and The Last Frontier (Aaron Jackson, J.P. Mathes, Ken Thomas, Dan Boner). Joined by Raymond McClain (fiddle, clawhammer banjo) in a varied set recorded after the group's 2005 Japan tour, the unique band demonstrates an open-minded willingness to incorporate Eastern and Western sensibilities into their bluegrass, instrumental and original music.

Kunimoto's first instrument was actually mandolin, taken up thirty years ago after seeing Bill Monroe. In 2003, the Japanese musician and storyteller attended East Tennessee State University where he joined the Bluegrass Pride Band. In 2004, The Last Frontier formed and released "Appalachian Shamisen." Over in Japan, Kunimoto is both preserving and pushing tradition as a rokyoku ballad singer who tells historical vignettes, accompanied by shamisen. The innovator incorporates elements of blues and rock music as he explores and revitalizes this traditional art form in his country. 

 The fretless shamisen only has three strings strung over its parchment-covered soundbox, but Kunimoto-san is a master at finding a way to fit into a bluegrass context. Purely Japanese, the shamisen first appeared in the sixteenth century. Now played with a large plectrum, the earliest shamisen could have been bowed. It's the quintessential all-purpose Japanese instrument, indispensable to theater, parties, geisha, folk and classical music. Because of the instrument's versatility in Japan, Kunimoto proves that it can also find acceptance in Oriental bluegrass. The shamisen's voices range from robust percussive propulsion ("Tears of the Samurai") to lyrically sweet vocalizing with a feminine touch ("Chinese Caravan"). The latter is a favorite. Four seconds later, Kunimoto is singing a fun, rousing original "A-Jyanaika" that reminds me of rowdy street musicians called "chindonya." The song's title means "Take it easy," and is based on an original "A-Janaika" song dating to about 1867 when the Japanese were nervous about changes in their country, earthquakes, tsunami, flood and other natural disasters. "A-Janaika" performed with a folk dance (or parade) helped the people to think positively. 

The band loses some balance in their fastest pieces that push and challenge each other ("Gonna Paint The Town"), but Jackson & Mathes' "The One Who Leads Me Home" is a pleasurable gospel experience. Burning original instrumentals like "Hikyaku's Love" and "Nanny Goat" keep the melodies simple, direct, with solid rhythmic thrust. 

This 38-minute album has a distinctive native sound and Japanese character, and the band's Zen-like wisdom emphasizes that there is much joy and fun to be found in each fleeting musical moment. Kunimoto fully realizes the many emotions of his instrument, and his rokyoku storytelling will no doubt now also include some hot bluegrass licks and phrasings to further thrill his enthusiastic Japanese audiences. (Joe Ross)