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Ronin Arkestra: Sonkei (Albert’s Favorites)

A review of the large ensemble's debut album

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Ronin Arkestra, Sonkei
The cover of Sonkei by the Ronin Arkestra

The Ronin Arkestra makes dense music that cuts through the air with spryness, like the layered steel-forged blades wielded by its namesake. Under the direction of keyboardist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe, the Arkestra draws members from a broad coalition of artists, like the hard-bop classicists Kyoto Jazz Sextet, acid-jazz outfit Cro-Magnon, and electronic music producer/DJ Sauce81, among others (who draw from realms like ’70s sax-and-synth, melody-driven fusion, and European discotheques). All of those sounds and moods collide on the group’s debut album, Sonkei.

With this large an ensemble, many of whose members bring different sonic perspectives, the compositions fall into danger of becoming too dense, too crammed with ideas. Yet all eight tracks on Sonkei, while sharing in the richness of the musicians’ vast palettes, have an entrancing, buoyant quality. Part of that comes from the adoption of the chorus-drop form of EDM, where the contrast and intrigue lie in the shifting group dynamics; part of it has to do with the way the musicians choose to ride and accent the grooves. This manifests strongly on tracks like “Onkochishin,” when the piano transitions from light, arpeggiated accompaniment behind the wailing horns to driving block chords that make all the other instruments surge upwards in energy.

Another secret to the music’s hypnotic draw lies in the tight interplay between the keyboards and the drums. The simple, looping riffs on the ivories lock into the tempo of the breakbeat drums, resonating with crisp, forceful articulation, creating a floating foundation for the fuzzy, reverb-laced horns to roil and roll over like crashing waves. It’s a feature throughout—there’s even some playful role reversal on “Circle of Transmigration”—but comes to a peak on “Cosmic Collisions,” Sonkei’s fifth and defining track. The acoustic piano riff kicks off the song and builds alongside the synth with each drop until they mirror the other, as saxophones, flutes, and electric piano whirl above them in a kaleidoscope of psychedelic euphoria.

Preview or download Sonkei on Amazon!

Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He graduated from Georgetown in 2015 with a degree in American Musical Culture and will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.