For experimental jazz saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi, his heritage as a Japanese American has given him plenty of artistic influence, a lot of it steeped in the horrors of war. “The concentration camps that Japanese Americans had to go through has been a major part of my work for the last couple of years,” he explains on his Bandcamp page. In 2020, he released Descension, which focused on experiences inside these camps, which housed more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, forced from their homes on the U.S. Pacific Coast following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But while that album places the listener directly inside those horrific places, his new album, Hidemi, is influenced by his grandfather’s experiences upon his release.
Hidemi is named after Shiroishi’s grandfather, Hidemi Patrick Shiroishi, and features Shiroishi playing all instruments himself – alto, baritone, tenor, C melody, and soprano saxophones, as well as voice. Hope, perseverance, and grace are some of the musical themes of this potent, emotionally charged album. The opening track, “Beachside Lonelyhearts”, begins with three loud blasts of saxophones, as if announcing the music like a jarring alarm. What follows in the remainder of the song is a gorgeous interplay of Shiroishi’s overdubbed saxophones, lyrical and majestic, often each recorded – like the rest of the album – in one take. With tempi shifting from funereal to frenetic and back again, the song introduces the combination of tenderness and cacophony that follows throughout the record’s nine songs.
The title of “Tule Lake Like Yesterday” refers to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center where Shiroishi’s grandparents were incarcerated. The words “like yesterday” are a reminder that this horrific location served as a memory, a “life-changing event filled with uncertainty, chaos, and hope slipping away”, Shiroishi explains in the album’s press materials. The music chugs along with an almost maddeningly repetitious multi-tracked saxophone figure as a baritone horn weaves in and out of the rhythmic cadence. Shiroishi’s astonishing dexterity with the instruments carries the song from complex melodies to dizzying atonality as he tries to convey the frustration and fear his grandparents must have felt during this inconceivably frightening period in their lives.
This type of frantic/reflective back-and-forth so widely present in Hidemi occasionally shifts to more ballad-oriented post-bop jazz moments, such as in the luminous “What Happens When People Open Their Hearts”. Here, the saxophones play off each other in sustained, deliberate notes and stay that way even when Shiroishi tears himself away to release a manic, John Coltrane-esque solo. Likewise, “Without the Threat of Punishment There Is No Joy in Fight” sees Shiroishi exploring the pain of oppression with just a solo saxophone, which seems jarring, following so many tracks of overdubbed instruments. Still, the naked vulnerability of the recording speaks emotional volumes.
Some moments seem to originate from tangential, less direct wartime inspiration, as the multifaceted “To Kill a Wind-Up Bird” is likely named after a combination of classic fictional works by Harper Lee and Haruki Murakami. The song is even accompanied by a rather unsettling but weirdly comic animated music video by director Dylan Pecora. One of the most emotionally charged moments on Hidemi comes on the closing track, “The Long Bright Dark”. It combines clusters of rapid saxophone buzz as a soprano saxophone floats over everything as Shiroishi’s multi-tracked voice briefly enters as a sort of wailing chorus before the song comes to a screeching halt. One can imagine Shiroishi using this performance as pure catharsis, channeling his reaction to the oppression of his grandparents into something loud, tangible, and deeply moving.
In conjunction with Hidemi, Shiroishi is also releasing Tangled, an 82-page chapbook featuring writings, art, and poems by himself and other Asian Americans, including Amirtha Kidambi, Dustin Wong, Susie Ibarra, Mai Sugimoto, and many more. This serves as a unique companion piece and allows Shiroishi to let other voices speak on experiences unique to their heritage. Reflecting on the horrors of war and racism, Hidemi is a staggering, important work, not just as a meditation on wartime internment but also to remind us that these horrors continue to exist in various forms today.