In 2015, violinist Tomoko Omura released an album called Roots, which offered jazz takes on 10 Japanese folk and pop songs. It was a clever way of situating herself as a Japanese musician working in the North American jazz milieu, but there were also moments—the walking bass beneath the sing-song vocal in “Antagata Dokosa,” or the way her pizzicato violin evoked the sound of a koto on “Chakkiri-bushi”—that demonstrated a real genius both for framing a melody and re-contextualizing musical traditions.
As the name suggests, Branches Vol. 1 picks up from there. This time, though, Omura takes a broader approach to her bridging of jazz and Japanese culture. The album opens with the chestnut “Moonlight in Vermont,” which Omura reconfigures rhythmically based on an unexpected observation: Its opening verse is a haiku. As such, her arrangement states that part of the melody as a five-beat phrase followed by a seven-beat phrase, and then five beats more. She doesn’t change the pitches, but this new phrasing transforms the tune, while the 7/8 vamp she’s written for the solos ensures that the improvisation is equally fresh.
Apart from “Konomichi,” a folk song played in a rhythmically knotty style that could pass for early Return to Forever, the rest of the compositions are Omura’s, based on traditional Japanese folktales. The focus here is less cross-cultural than narrative, as Omura uses thematic ideas and rhythmic structures to tell each tale. Although it helps to read the liner notes as you listen, once you grasp the story, it’s easy to hear events unfold in the music. The four-note bass vamp beneath her violin solo “Three Magic Charms” suggests Oni-Baba pounding at the door, and the growing frenzy of Glenn Zaleski’s synth solo in “The Revenge of the Rabbit” evokes the increasingly nasty punishments the rabbit metes out on a murderous racoon. Can’t wait to hear what Omura has in store for volume two.