The first sound you hear on Miles Okazaki’s latest album is something familiar: the warm, springy, and crisp tone of his Gibson Charlie Christian model guitar. However, that small bit of comfort quickly gives way to a rush of new, rumbling sounds as his quartet launches into the adventure proper of The Sky Below. It’s a sequel of sorts to his previous recording of original material, 2017’s The Trickster, with Okazaki and his new quartet channeling a kind of epic storytelling through the Charybdis swirl of their music.
For The Trickster, Okazaki turned to legends of tricksters as inspiration—think the Norse god Loki or the West African spider god Anansi. He continues that line of thought on The Sky Below but takes cues from tales of the sea; more Odyssey, less Br’er Rabbit. The group thrashes stormily on “Dog Star,” Okazaki and pianist Matt Mitchell pushing and pulling against each other like ocean waves in the tempest. Bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman add to the onslaught on “Monstropolous,” which beats out Lennie Tristano’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” as the most terrifyingly realistic sonic portrait of a whirlpool. The four play circular patterns that spiral downward, unrelenting and dizzying in their pull.
These are just two stops on the eight-track journey; others allow Okazaki to play with the conventional sounds associated with sea and shore. A series of chords suggesting calm, beachside-cabana bossa nova on “Seven Sisters” grows into towering, foreboding melodic exchanges between Okazaki and Mitchell. On “The Castaway,” the quartet makes isolation feel palpable as the guitar wanders disjointedly over the rhythm section, seemingly adrift. Okazaki knows where he’s going, but the music plays the trick all too well.
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