Trees Don’t Care About Math

Written by Saby Reyes-Kulkarni on . Posted in Posts.

In much the same way that turning over a stone can reveal a hidden, microcosmic world of insect and plant life, Generations, guitarist Miles Okazaki’s sophomore album, offers a fresh, startling view into aspects of nature that sit right under our noses but tend to go unexplored. Okazaki also uncovers new realms of flexibility in the idea of the concept itself. With one decisive swoop—the album was recorded completely live in one take—Okazaki effectively retrieves the concept from its position as a modern-art device and puts it back into the hands of the general public. He also establishes new possibilities for the role of vocals in jazz and harnesses the dynamics and range of an orchestra in a seven-piece format.

Essentially an attempt to convey nature in sound, Generations was conceived as one continuous piece of music. Within it, Okazaki attempts to recreate the feeling of natural processes (gravity, momentum, symmetry, cycles of birth and death, regeneration) by employing musical forms based on mathematical intervals common to nature and physics. At the same time, Okazaki has crafted a work that does not demand that the listener be aware of his underlying thought process. In fact, one way to remain faithful to Okazaki’s intentions is to not think about them at all.
And he manages to avoid burdening the music by filling it with, well, life. Like the ant colony under the proverbial rock, Generations teems with activity as Okazaki and the other players suggest moods and images that are easy to grasp for anyone who’s ever just sat under a tree or gazed at a body of water.

To do this, of course, requires musicians who are fluent in mathematical complexity. But math, Okazaki points out, is in a sense inconsequential to nature.

“Math,” he offers, “is just what we use to describe these things. But from the point of view of nature, the tree is probably not thinking about math.”

For Okazaki, it’s clearly possible for musicians to walk a line between the cerebral and the intuitive.

“Music basically is math,” he clarifies. “When it comes down to it, it consists of waves that are going at a certain speed hitting your ear and all this stuff. We’re dealing with mathematical phenomena. But if you can plant a garden in perfect straight rows and come back 10 years later, it’s going to be wild and crazy.”

Generations does get wild and crazy. Certain passages sound like mini-soundtracks to the scurrying of thousands of tiny feet, the band touching on the relentless, explosive chaos unfolding all around us in the natural world. Serene in spots, Generations also echoes the dark tension of, say, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score. It’s no surprise that, as a Pacific Northwest native, Okazaki spent a great deal of time observing nature. Originally from a small waterfront town 50 miles northwest of Seattle, Okazaki discovered jazz as an adolescent before moving east in 1991 as a young “jazz snob” oblivious to Seattle’s famous rock exports.

After spending most of his career backing tradition-oriented jazz vocalists, Okazaki has turned to a more innovative approach on his own. On Generations, singer Jen Shyu (whom Okazaki, drummer Dan Weiss and alto saxophonist David Binney also back in her band Jade Tongue) sings mostly without words. This technique is, of course, not new unto itself, but Okazaki and Shyu’s distinct touch suggests that jazz might be moving forward from the rigid bipolarity that continues to define the genre’s relationship with singing.

“With Jen,” explains Okazaki, “my intention was to not go to the default thing. Already, some people who have listened to the record are like, ‘Why is the singer buried in the mix?’ I did that very purposely, and she wanted that as well.”

Yet Shyu’s vocals don’t fall easily under the avant-garde umbrella either. Mostly, her phrases flow as smoothly as water, and Okazaki is careful to avoid preoccupying the listener with her technique. He displays a similarly deft touch with the music overall, citing DNA as an analogy.

“With DNA,” says Okazaki, “there are some very simple rules that combine in very complex ways. But you can see a human and you know that it is a human. I’m trying to do something like that in music.”

>Miles Okazaki
June 12 and 13, The Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson St. (betw. Dominick & Spring Sts.), 212-242-1063; times vary, $15