Keyboardist Sakamoto did his first session work during his post-graduate studies of electronic and ethnic music at the University of Art of Tokyo in the mid-’70s. He continued after getting an MFA and, in 1978, released his first solo album, Thousand Knives. Presaging his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra (which he formed later that year), the record consists of electronic disco, commendably quirky for the time it was recorded but now largely dated, with some unnecessary guitar soloing — the chief guest performance on the disc, since almost everything else was played by Sakamoto. Only surreal environment-conjuring on one track and musical cross-pollination on another hint at the avant-garde and world music aspects of Sakamoto’s later work.
While with YMO, he made B-2 Unit with the help of British reggae musician/producer Dennis Bovell and XTC’s Andy Partridge. Though not throwing up as many sparks with them as might have been expected — what might he do with Bovell now? — it clearly shows him to be an adventuresome oddball rather than a trendy studio hack.
On 1981’s Left Handed Dream, Sakamoto effectively draws out and integrates his collaborators (Robin “M” Scott and Adrian Belew, as well as both YMO cohorts), who in turn get the best out of him. The LP varies from slippery, fractured funk to a duel between a grim, darkly atmospheric drone and assorted percussion; it consistently scintillates, though sometimes in a curiously offhand way. (In 1990, The Arrangement reissued the tracks featuring Scott — about half the album — plus several more, evidently outtakes of the original session.)
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is the soundtrack to a film starring Tom Conti, David Bowie and Sakamoto, who performed the entire evocative synth score alone (save a vocal of dubious worth by David Sylvian in an alternative version of the main theme). He more recently acted in The Last Emperor (1987), also contributing half of the suitably atmospheric soundtrack album. (The score won an Oscar.) The disc’s only memorable music is Sakamoto’s main theme (with its surprisingly European feel), which he explores through much of his side.
Both films’ music appeared later in other forms. Coda reprises the first seven tracks of Mr. Lawrence, while Playing the Orchestra is a live symphonic rendering of music from The Last Emperor, followed by an equally in-depth investigation of about a third of Mr. Lawrence, capped by the restatement of the Last Emperor theme. Lovely, warm, spacious and extremely tough to obtain: a limited-edition CD release in a gorgeous decorated box, with a bonus CD-3 featuring a trio of non-movie tracks.
Esperanto is an abridged version of Sakamoto’s end of a dance performance collaboration with New York choreographer Melissa Fenley. His staccato blend of pure electronic sounds and samples of voices and instruments, often electronically altered, is mildly impressive but not engaging.
Adventures of Chatran and Koneko Monogatari are also movie scores, the latter for one of Japan’s biggest-ever box-office flicks; Honneamise is his score for an animated sci-fi film. Piano One consists of solo acoustic piano pieces by four artists, including Sakamoto and Eddie Jobson.
Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia (originally released in 1984 in Japan, as Ongakuzukan) opens with “Field Work,” a low-key dance-rock joint venture with Thomas Dolby that was also released as a single; it’s immediately likable but unrelated to the feel of the rest of the record. The LP’s title states an idea Sakamoto has toyed with since Thousand Knives: combining pieces of Eastern and Western musics so they’re not readily identifiable yet complement each other as part of an organic whole. He sometimes crosses the line into pretentious piano muzak when meddling with European “classical” music, but it’s a mostly worthwhile attempt, if it does require patience to absorb the subtler angles. (He explores all this more ambitiously — and successfully — on Neo Geo.)
Three tracks on Miraiha Yaro (aka Futurista) have conventional melodies — almost reminiscent of TV themes — but tricked up with oddball, loud and/or abrasive synth arrangements (as if to counterweight the tunes’ prettiness). “Milan 1909” is an electronic curator’s narration on the Futurist art movement, over restrained keyboard; “Verso lo schermo” is electro- disco-cum-opera, with Italian lyrics; “Water Is Life” is a wall of music chopped up and distorted, along with a voice slowed to a deep slur. Helpers include vocalist Bernard Fowler, guitarist Arto Lindsay, Sakamoto’s wife Akiko Yano (some Japanese lyrics) and saxist Maceo Parker (of James Brown fame). Not as engaging as it is impressive, but almost. Media Bahn is a double live LP of a subsequent tour in support of the album; Sakamoto is aided by Fowler and percussionist David Van Tieghem.
Neo Geo is Sakamoto’s biggest all-star affair, boasting Van Tieghem, drumming by jazz star Tony Williams and reggae heavyweight Sly Dunbar, bassists Bootsy Collins and Bill Laswell (also Sakamoto’s co-producer/writing partner here) and, on one track, a strangely simpatico Iggy Pop vocalizing his own thoughtfully dramatic lyrics. Sakamoto spends the rest of the album carrying forth the Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia experiments, which get most exciting when he tries weird intertwinings of Japanese music and rock/funk. The LP’s highlights are among Sakamoto’s best work. (Risky is a CD-V of five Neo Geo tunes, four of which have visual contents for those equipped with videodisc players.)
With Beauty, Sakamoto really becomes the Quincy Jones of alternative music. His all-star cast includes Arto Lindsay (no guitar, only vocals and poem reading), Robbie Robertson (Sakamoto co-wrote songs for Robertson’s second solo LP), Sly Dunbar and — would you believe — Brian Wilson singing backup to Robert Wyatt’s lead on the Stones’ “We Love You”? Although more exciting on paper than it turns out to be in the grooves, that’s not so bad a thing. About the only celebrity who retains much identity here is Youssou N’Dour, with various vocal embellishments and a lead vocal on “Diabaram” (which he co-wrote); otherwise it’s Sakamoto’s show (he even sings lead in English for the first time) as he deftly injects Japanese, Arabic, Indian and African elements into western pop musics. It’s not as exciting — or as decisively successful — as Neo Geo, but its sophisticated synthesis is both pleasant and A-for-effort admirable.
A Handmaid’s Tale and The Sheltering Sky are both critically and commercially unsuccessful movie adaptations of well-received novels, the former by Margaret Atwood and the latter by Paul Bowles; Sakamoto did the scores for both. For the latter, his compositions — mostly played by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — are somewhat repetitive but evocative, with a main theme vaguely reminiscent of his Last Emperor theme. Half of The Sheltering Sky album has little or nothing to do with Sakamoto: three tracks are by composer Richard Horowitz and there are several striking samples of North African music and a couple of period pieces.