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Masayoshi Fujita - Book of Life Music Album Reviews

On his first solo album since his 2016 collaboration with Jan Jelinek, the experimental vibraphonist blurs the edges of his instrument in compositions both abstract and warmly sentimental.

“Before the solid-body electric guitar, the vibraphone was the ultimate modernist instrument, [a] technology of struck metal and vibrating air, percussion and melody,” writes David Toop in his 1999 musical survey Exotica, which traces “the art of ruins” through everyone from Martin Denny to the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.. Developed in the late 1920s, the vibraphone became a staple of exotica and cool jazz after the war, its timbre hovering in a fuzzy space between rhythm and ambience, “primitive” and sophisticated. While there have been some titans on the vibes, like Bobby Hutcherson and Roy Ayers, it’s generally perceived as an accompanying rather than lead instrument.

Over the course of a decade—spanning a series of solo albums and a long-standing collaboration with experimental producer Jan Jelinek—the Berlin-based vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita has strived to make his instrument the primary focus, even as he blurs its edges. Fujita uses all manner of manipulation to make it sound like anything but a vibraphone, from electronics to bowing the bars to preparing his pipes with kitchen foil or a string of beads. For Book of Life, he doesn’t need so many tactics. Instead, he emphasizes his heart-stirring melodic gifts, often pairing mallets with violin, cello, flute, and voice. Fujita calls it his most “human” release, but considering the organic, woozy, at times alien atmospheres that arose from his previous efforts, such warmth feels slightly less idiosyncratic than before.

On the stirring opener “Snowy Night Tale,” his instrument glows softly as strings swirl, conjuring the wistfulness and intimacy of the title. And if the cello-and-vibraphone elegance of “It’s Magical” doesn’t lead to Fujita fielding calls for soundtrack work in the near future (perhaps for the next Hayao Miyazaki film), it will be cinema’s loss. Achingly poignant, it soon gives way to more anxious tones, conveying an unusually complex emotional state in the span of just a few minutes. But every once in a while, Fujita and cohorts get uncomfortably close to the mawkish, as on the precious “Mountain Deer.”

It’s when Fujita moves unaccompanied that he ascends to a more contemplative and numinous realm. Despite the relative straightforwardness of their titles, “Fog” and “Sadness” reveal the spacious terrain that Fujita can traverse with only vibraphone. The slow-blooming resonance of his instrument imparts an uncanny sense of both depth and weightlessness as Fujita allows enough space for each overtone to expand, spiral upwards, and decay before the next note arises.

On the gorgeous “Harp,” Fujita seems to mimic the peaceful, unpredictable flow of a body of water, moving this way and then drifting in another direction, his playing evoking flower petals landing on a pond, rippling outwards. If Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson ever had the chance to step away from the jazz idiom to record a new-age album, it would sound as blissful as this. As Fujita moves through closer “Cloud of Light,” his touch is so light that the sound of mallet on metal starts to give way. The piece grows more hushed until it seems that, rather than playing vibraphone, Fujita is simply vibrating the air.

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