Aiko Shimada
w/ Kaitlyn ni Donovan

Mr. Spot's Chai House, Fri Dec 14, $6.

When Seattle singer-songwriter Aiko Shimada was offered an album deal by John Zorn, the grand doyen of ethnically tinged jazz and experimental music, the opportunity had one major string attached. Shimada recalls the qualification in a recent interview: "John Zorn wanted me to do the whole record in Japanese. I really didn't want to, but I didn't want to challenge him, [and] not do the project."

Shimada's reluctance to assert herself and jeopardize her record deal has ultimately turned into a great windfall for both the album--Blue Marble, released on Tzadik Records in 2001--and Shimada herself. The album can be heard on radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, and Shimada has caught the attention of reviewers from North America to Japan to Russia. It's been an impressive breakthrough for the guitarist and singer who first started playing at the late age of 24.

And if Shimada's late start wasn't enough of a handicap, her music itself is at times far too willfully obscure for commercial audiences to handle. Melodies pick up and trail off again, accompanying instruments hum in and out of the compositions, and Shimada's own shimmering specter of a voice ranges from languid to intense, but is rarely accessible.

Adding Japanese lyrics to this already ineffable music was an understandably daunting task. Although Shimada is a native of Tokyo, she didn't start playing music until she had left Japan. As a result, almost every song she had written in her career as a musician was tuned to English lyrics, and most all of her musical influences came from her immediate surroundings in Oregon and Washington. Forced by Zorn to decide whether to try to translate old songs from English into Japanese or to write mostly new songs, Shimada chose the latter. The result was a set of new titles that not only expanded her sound, but also provided a model for integrating Japanese lyrics and Western instrumentation.

"Listening to Japanese pop tunes, I always hated the way they would sing their lyrics," Shimada says. "It seemed so separated from the music itself. I wanted the music and lyrics to go together." Her solution was to study the phrasing of American jazz singers, who shape their lyrics by drawing out or contracting syllables in their quest to imitate the fluidity of instrumental improvisation. By phrasing her Japanese lyrics with a jazz sensibility, she avoids sounding "staccato" or forced. Musically, the transition has been a success, but Shimada is not quite ready to forswear English-language songwriting. "When I write songs, I write them from the music first." Language choice, then, follows the dictates of the individual piece.

But whether consciously or not, Shimada has always been searching for songs that defy instant understanding, and in the context of the Northwest music audience, the addition of the Japanese language has added to the intrigue of Shimada's sound. It's an allure that Shimada looks for in her musical influences as well. When asked what she's been listening to recently, she first mentions French composer Erik Satie, whose work from the turn of the 20th century still attracts Shimada because "it sounds like it's from another part of the universe--so different, yet very beautiful to me."

Her second mention is of an Afghani musical compilation that she discovered before September 11, and has been listening to even more intently since. As with the Satie she listens to, the attraction of the Afghani music is the sense of difference: "It's very mysterious to me. It's not an intellectual thing; it's more emotional. The music is so incredibly old, and I can feel it, and it just fascinates me."

In her own way, Shimada calculatingly brings that alluring sense of the other to her own music. She is an interpreter--someone who melds her own specific background into a moody, expansive sound that fits perfectly within the larger Northwest music scene. The 38-year-old describes herself as having been a sickly child, too unhealthy even to take the perfunctory piano or violin lessons that almost all Japanese children take. It's not only a clear explanation for her late start in music, but also a possible source of the underlying melancholy that runs through her compositions.

But Shimada's music is not personal to the point of irrelevance. In fact, in an era when Americans are increasingly frightened of the unknown, an era of search warrants and bag checks and endless surveillance, Aiko Shimada's music is almost revolutionary in its mysteriousness. The vastness and the slowness of her sound aren't for everyone, but she's a godsend for Seattleites who, despite our times, are still looking for beauty in the inscrutable other.

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