In Japanese folk music, it’s common to find women singing while accompanying themselves on the shamisen (a fretless, three-stringed lute). In jazz, not so much, which in itself is enough to make singer/songwriter/shamisen player Emi Makabe a singular talent.
As a songwriter, Makabe combines the melodic directness of a pop tunesmith with the rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of a jazz musician. Out of Time, her 2015 debut EP, made excellent use of those strengths. “Shirayuri (Lily),” for instance, was sung entirely in Japanese and had only double bass (played by husband Thomas Morgan) as accompaniment, yet still had the cheery bounce of a pop song, while “On the Delta” sounded like J-Pop played by a jazz trio.
With Anniversary, Makabe’s writing has only deepened, but without losing its tuneful brio. Better still, the arrangements are wonderfully polyrhythmic, with the banjo-like plunk of her shamisen working patterns over Vitor Gonçalves’ piano, Morgan’s bass, and Kenny Wollesen’s drums. On “Moon & I,” she plays arpeggiated triplets on the shamisen while the others play in different meters against her. The sound is unified but disjointed, mirroring the mix of feelings described in the verse, but when she gets to the refrain the whole band locks into those triplets, bringing the song into crystalline focus. In “Treeing,” a blues shamisen riff is contrasted against the lush harmony of the chorus and a slippery Latin-tinged verse, while the short, simple “I Saw the Light” is blessed with the pacific lyricism of a great hymn.
Makabe isn’t a powerhouse singer, but her light, clear soprano is agile and accurate, and she has no trouble holding her own against the band when improvising. At 11 songs, Anniversary is both long enough to feel complete and strong enough to leave the listener wanting more.Originally Published