AMN Reviews: Kyoko Kitamura’s Tidepool Fauna – Protean Labyrinth (2018; Bandcamp)

Vocalist Kyoko Kitamura is best known for her collaborations with Anthony Braxton, as well as her leadership role in his Tri-Centric Foundation. Thus, it can be easy to overlook her non-Braxton solo and group work, of which Protean Labyrinth is the latest example. Here, she is joined by Ingrid Laubrock on sax, Ken Filiano on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums for eight tracks of guided improvisation.

Two characteristics of the album are immediately discernable. First is Kitamura’s wordless vocal approach. She rambles, scats, and shouts throughout, varying in emotion from playful to plaintive and many places in between, changing styles and pitch with ease. The second is the overall use of space by the group. Laubrock, Filiano, and Seok are restrained, not filling each quiet moment with notes.

That is not to say that there isn’t any virtuosity herein or that the album does not have a full sound. Filiano, in particular, gives his bass a workout from time to time but also provides subtle atmospherics. Similarly, Seok artfully combines busy unpredictability with a controlled finesse. Laubrock, of course, is wonderfully expressive while taking less of a leading role than one might expect from a purveyor of her instrument. The bottom line is that this quartet functions as a group with Kitamura as ostensible – but non-obvious – leader.

A high point is Slide, which features a wistful three-note theme worked through by Kitamura and Laubrock. Filiano stays in the mostly background with bowed drones, and Seok provides fractured beats. Kitamura expands upon the expressive theme with mournful cries and the rhythm section builds to a frenetic interlude, but the piece as a whole remains surprisingly understated.

Despite the instrumentation, this is not jazz. Nor does it groove, or set forth clear melodies. Instead, Kitamura and company offer an emotionally and intellectually satisfying excursion into a world of instrumentals with voice. Each minute of the recording overflows with ideas. Needless to say, this is one of the more compelling releases of the year.

Protean Labyrinth will be released on August 10.