The term samurai has unfortunately suffered much of the same kind of denaturing in English (and maybe in Japanese as well) as genius, or rock'n'roll. The root of the word samurai was a verb that meant "to serve", but even in its native Japan the implications of the word have drifted. It's since become a connotation for the kind of dogged-but-proud loner whose closest analogue in the West has been the noir detective. Decades of noir-influenced chanbara cinema — everything from Yojimbo to Zatoichi — have only cemented that drift all the more.
Small wonder Samuraiera feels like a "soungs from the motion picture soundtrack" album for just such a 1970s-era film, with the blue-tinted cover shot of a hand gripping a katana hilt serving as its poster. The fifteen tracks on this disc, collected and programmed by DJ Kaoru Inoue (a/k/a "Chari Chari", one half of the duo Aurora Acoustic), survey a whole range of jazz, funk, and Latin grooves from Japan's byways. With a few marked exceptions, most of the artists are apt to be total unknowns to Western ears, but that only magnifies the pleasures inherent in stumbling across all the little gems found here.
The first name on the roster might well ring some bells with jazz fans: the Isao Suzuki Quartet, whose bandleader and bassist was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers back in the day. His track, "Aqua Marine", has been widely anthologized elsewhere, and it's no surprise why: it's as moody-blue as its title, with gorgeous bowed basswork courtesy of Suzuki. Speaking of Art Blakey, he appears here in the company of drummer George Kawaguchi for "Tin Tin Teo" (found on their album Killer Joe), which is as spirited and sassy as "Aqua Marine" is laid-back.
Zerosen is typical of a lot of the talent on this record: an obscurity, but a talented one. No albums of theirs appear on Amazon, and their track "Sunrise" is only found in a Discogs entry for an album of the same name. It's laid-back jazz-funk from a group that only put out two albums — this track from their second and last — and which I'm led to believe later became the group Timecycle. Influences aside, the track is gently tantalizing. (They also contributed to this disc another heavily funk-inflected track, "Scramble".)
In the same lad-back vein, and even more tantalizing, is Terumasa Hino's "This Planet Is Ours" (from the album Hip Seagull). Hino's a jazz trumpeter with albums that sport the usual array of standards — but this track's composed by longtime behind-the-scenes session arranger and songwriter Harry Whitaker, also of Roy Ayer's Ubiquity. Hino's version is gloriously smooth and tastefully rendered, and backed by soaring vocals courtesy of none other than Tawatha Agee, of Mtume ("Juicy Fruit") fame. Another Ubiquity alum, Sandy Hewitt, contributes vocals to the soul / funk track "Umma Be Me", in the company of the Teruo Nakamura Group, so named for its bandleader and bassist.
The mysterious Kochi's moody "La Moca Esta Dorming" brings to mind many of Miles Davis's 1970s work, right down to the vaguely atonal Spanish-inflected chord changes and the electronically-processed trumpet work. In the wrong hands, this would be bad movie music; here, it's got a sinister edge. Drummer Hideo Shiraki apparently has quite a catalog to draw on, so I'm a little baffled why his inclusion was "Stereo Drum", which sounds like something you'd hear on one of those Fifties hi-fi test records.
The Spick & Span were known for a bossa-nova flavored jazz sound (something that turns up a good deal on this disc), and "Thoroughbred's Way", from their debut self-titled album, goes alternately fast and slow without ever getting harried or draggy. And percussionist Ponta Murakami's contribution, one of my very favorites, is a spry little number, "Song for Nabi", that brings to mind a scene from one of Takeshi Kitano's movies — the ones about kids growing up, not gangsters shooting each other. There's plenty of other tunes on this disc for that.