Formed in the unlikely cultural incubator of Shoreline Community College during the sun-dappled summer of 2004 by three like-minded Japanese students, Na have since proven themselves to be one of Seattle's oddest and most ambitious experimental-music crews. Consisting of the willfully unclassifiable work of guitarist/vocalist Kazu Nomura, pianist/multi-instrumentalist Noriaki Watanabe, and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Shin Yamada, Na call no genre master, and trample the space between known musical paths with toddler-style mischief.
A truly free free-improv trio, they benefit from elegantly accomplished musicianship and an unusually high success ratio with their use of humor. While many post-Zappa/post-Zorn artists feel teeth-grindingly awkward in their nudging wackiness, Na manage to maintain a strangely unaffected and naturalistic air, even at their most goofy.
Soon after their inception, Na began to self-release and manually distribute a series of rapidly produced CD-Rs that would eventually total 40 in number. With a weird combination of self-promotional aggressiveness rivaling any major-label street team and pure love-of-music-borne sharing, Na flooded Seattle's music community with their DIY efforts. While understandably inconsistent (and indeed the notion of quality control may be missing the point), their wave-like discography reveals Na's developing musical vocabulary and impressive work ethic. The trio's live-recorded, electronics-littered music feels at once thrown off and passionate. They reflect the earnest ambition of their recordings with a sturdy touring schedule and unabashed networking with far-flung avant-garde musicians.
Their new album Naisnice, on San Francisco experimental label Pax Recordings, is their first "proper" album in terms of its legit-pressed and mass-produced nature. Nomura describes Naisnice as a distillation of the ideas explored and poked at over the course of their previous 40 albums, and says that it represents the beginning of a natural transition to more traditional types of releases for the band. While still hilariously diverse and unset in its ways, the album certainly breathes with a focus and clarity beyond most of Na's CD-R output.
At the center of many of the songs is the nylon-string guitar and brainless-baby yowl of quasi-frontperson Nomura. As with a great number of experimental guitarists, his playing is prone to launch fully into utter id-spraying avant shredding or refined jazz classicism at the drop of a hat. A collegiate jazzman, Nomura lightly overlays boppish melodic runs and nostalgia-laden chords onto Na's skittering pieces. His vocalizations veer to even greater extremes, sometimes gesturing toward unreachable melody and sometimes wallowing in sheer unmusical wailing. His presence is something of a personality-driven anchor to Watanabe and Yamada's more anonymous multitudinous textures, and lends both more raw emotion and more theatricality to Na's music.
While ostensibly an obliquely inclined improv trio, Na frequently indulge in grass-grazing, pastel-jazz beauty and loping rhythms that conjure cartoon animals going about their daily rounds. Songs like Naisnice's second track, "B," bubble along so lightly and joyfully that they wouldn't be out of place scoring a PBS kids' show.
While Na undeniably dole out bursts of cacophonous bristle and bustle à la more straight-ahead free jazz, their music roams with such abandon that it makes standard musical concepts like beauty and dissonance seem too confining when applied to their output. Of the band's goals and designs, Nomura says, "Although we categorize into noise/experimental/pop, I don't think that that category is proper. Our music confuses even its performers. I don't know what it is, if it is even music or not. To me, Na is just finished in its own world."
This degree of non-self-critique—indeed, of total non-process—while perhaps applicable to a lot of lesser "experimental" bands, is embraced in a very empowering way by the three young men of Na. It is telling that their name is not just varied in its possible literal translations (it can mean "name," "flower," or "exorcism" in Japanese), but also one of the most basic singsong syllables. Their music is not only childlike in its giddying affect, but also in its base conceptual foundations; Na embrace freedom not just from musical stricture, but from the strictures of being cool, being thoughtful, and even being firstname.lastname@example.org