French sextet Asynchrone has a straightforward concept: they play Ryuichi Sakamoto compositions. Fittingly given Sakamoto’s prolific eclecticism, they are decidedly less straightforward in execution. On their debut full-length album, Plastic Bamboo, the group interpret 11 of Sakamoto’s works, both from his time with Yellow Magic Orchestra and as a solo artist, and ends up building as varied and whole-hearted a repertoire as the late artist deserves, spinning brilliant webs of jazz and synthpop with tremendous skill and spirit as they pay tribute to a true visionary.
Three high-energy selections from the Yellow Magic Orchestra catalogue (“Expecting Rivers”, “Neue Tanz”, and “Behind the Mask”) and eight cuts from Sakamoto’s solo discography (including the duet “Once in a Lifetime”, originally recorded in 1993 with Robin Scott) make for a rich sampling of Sakamoto’s immense range as a composer and give Asynchrone a chance to work across a spectrum of musical spaces, balancing homage with innovation. Groundbreaking proto-techno song “Neue Tanz” retains its electronic bite in Asynchrone’s version but swaps out industrial clangs for more whimsical synths and a quick saxophone solo (courtesy of Frédéric Soulard and Hugues Mayot, respectively).
An acoustic warmth in the form of drum kit crashes (Vincent Taeger), horns, winds (Delphine Joussein on flutes), and piano (Manuel Peskine) permeates the driving rhythms of the influential dance track “Riot in Lagos”. Bringing together acoustic and electric elements makes for a particularly dramatic iteration of “Behind the Mask”, whose clear arcade inspirations turn fully cinematic in no small part thanks to the exclamations of cellist Clément Petit and, again, Mayot’s impassioned sax work.
Asynchrone approaches some of Sakamoto’s sparser pieces with just as much reverence. Pizzicato strings drift in the open space of “Thatness and Thereness”, a minimalist masterpiece. “Ubi”, initially a meandering work for melancholy piano and silvery drone released on 2017’s async, becomes more cosmic, all twinkling synths and soaring brass twisting heavenward instead of sinking into the depths. Plastic Bamboo ends, as so many Sakamoto tributes do, with a particularly exquisite version of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, one of Sakamoto’s most widely beloved creations. Opening with tender bursts of cello, the track is soon rife with atmosphere as synths and flutes build, wisp by wisp, an entire soundscape on which piano and sax briefly exchange moving sentiments before the album fades away into an extended, melodic outro.
It’s no easy feat to try and capture the artistic essence of Ryuichi Sakamoto in a single record, as the members of Asynchrone surely know. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be their goal. Instead, they spend Plastic Bamboo embracing the endlessness of Sakamoto’s work, the fact that even now, after his passing, he has left vast amounts of space for rearrangement and experimentation. The six members of Asynchrone inhabit this space thoughtfully, crafting it with deep regard for the composer and one another. This is no half-baked, shallow tribute; this is original work, made with care and, importantly, a sense of play, embodying not only Sakamoto’s sounds but his ethos of constant metamorphosis. Asynchrone is a group of talented musicians, and with Plastic Bamboo, they make an exciting debut.