PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Miles Okazaki: Trickster

The jazz guitarist has made his best record, marrying the Steve Coleman sensibility with so many other influences and serving up songs for an ideal quartet featuring Craig Taborn, Sean Rickman, and Anthony Tidd.

Miles Okazaki


Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2017-03-24
UK Release Date: 2016-03-24

There was a time, in the 1980s, when it seemed as though the musicians around saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman (who was espousing a musical approach he called “M-Base”) were becoming a vital center of creativity -- and one that represented a contrast to the “young lion” neo-traditional musicians who otherwise dominated that era. Ten years later, that surge didn’t seem to have taken hold. But today it is clear that M-Base and Coleman were simmering rather than boiling, and there is now a growing group of musicians from that scene who are redefining jazz in the new century.

Guitarist Miles Okazaki is a critical musician in that history, and his new recording, Trickster is a mature work for the ages.

It’s important to know that Okazaki is much more than his association with Coleman. He is a mature musician with a wide-ranging background that includes more mainstream gigs (for example, a first gig with Stanley Turrentine and four years on the road and three records with vocalist Jane Monheit); degrees from Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Julliard; training with composer Anthony Davis; three prior recordings as a leader, and extensive experience beyond jazz. So, in hearing Trickster, you are hearing an extension of his experience with Coleman (and Coleman’s extended family, including folks like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson), but also a career of thinking about and making this music.

The band includes 2017’s frontrunner for jazz musician of the year, pianist Craig Taborn, and a rhythm section we might also associate with Coleman: Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. Again, however, the association with Coleman shouldn’t hide the fact that Tidd is a wide-ranging producer and musician with credits that include work with the Roots, MeShell Ndegeocello, and Wayne Krantz; Rickman (the son of legendary guitarist Phil Unchurch) has played with DC’s Blacksheep reggae band, soul queen Angela Bofill, Ndegeochello, and Maxwell. The quartet, then, could move in any direction and every direction at once.

And it does.

The collection of sounds here has a focus and a sense of expansion at once. “The Calendar”, for example, is spun from a series of patterns Okazaki has drawn from the math of an ancient Babylonian calendar. Drums and bass lock into a wave of interlocking polyrhythms, and then harmonic variations work through a series of slow transformations. Okazaki improvises throughout, but the performance has an intense composure so that tension and excitement rise very, very slowly. It is beautiful but also clock-like: turning, spinning, moving toward high noon with just an occasional alignment of all the musicians into a cymbal crash or sudden rest.

Okazaki plays electric guitar but often with the most minimal amplification. “Eating Earth” starts with a simple melody stated in four-note phrases, the strings of the guitar sounding very purely against simple counterpoint by Taborn’s left hand and Tidd’s electric bass. Once the groove kicks in -- which might bring to mind the earthy bass line from Miles Davis’s “Tutu” but with a rhythmic complexity -- Taborn takes over with a slowly developing improvisation that begins from the written melody and turns into a fantasy of movement away from and back to the melody.

I’m just as much in love with the more soulful parts of Trickster. The opening track, “Kudzu”, starts with a Charlie Parker-esque melody played in tight octaves by guitar and Taborn’s right hand. Okazaki solos with a focus on blues elements, swinging his attack so that it catches in the groove of the rhythm section as well. Taborn improvises a fleet statement that is mostly a single-note line for his right hand, but as the solo ripens, the whole band (and his left hand too) are working like a drummer generating heat behind him.

The compositions and arrangement are not afraid to fool around with our expectations. “Mischief” starts with a plucked chordal pattern on guitar that sounds for all the world like something from a bossa nova at first. It turns into grooving example of 9/8 time, and it inspires gloriously melodic improvisations. “Black Bolt” almost sounds like a funk tune at first, and it develops a set of cross rhythms that remain grooving despite the development of a thrilling complexity. Don’t count the beats while you listen, just enjoy the sense of percolating momentum that gives the short (2:42) tune its wow factor.

The tune that most makes me want to dance is the bouncing “Caduceus”, which sets a guitar melody and piano melody in rotation around each other. The time signature is ambiguous to my ear, but it doesn’t matter as the groove is so fine -- an infectious set of popping eighth and sixteenth notes that skip and hop and... dance. Taborn and Okazaki trade lines like Bird and Diz.

There is a thematic connection between tunes, explained in Okazaki’s fun liner notes. Each composition relates to a different trickster figure from various cultures across time. The connection to the music is sometimes mathematical, sometimes cultural, but always based on the sensibility of wit, deception, or sly disruption. The compositions and their transformations by improvisation keep you slightly off-balance, and the players seem to be pressing on the forms while still working within their elasticity. First among those players is Craig Taborn, who yet again seems like the best musician to bring into your band: relentlessly in sync with the material and equally relentlessly himself at all times.

For me, the dazzling quality of Trickster is how it marries the M-Base sensibility of rhythm and melodic development to other musical experiences. That Coleman “sound” will be your first impression, but streaks of funk, slices of bop, doses of hip-hop, and echoes of jazz balladry are here too. This is what you call “putting it all together” -- which means that Trickster is that rare, mature work of an artist who has come fully into his own.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.