Sense of place can be a tricky commodity in instrumental music. Without the benefit of lyrics to spoon-feed the listener a story or scene, dependent instead on sound palettes and feeling to set the mood, instrumental producers have a little more license to play around with different vibes- and with that comes a greater responsibility to maintain some semblance of consistency. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an instrumental album being all over the map, if it lacks cohesion it can tend to come out sounding like a collection of unrelated outtakes rather than a focused, intentional work. Again, these are conditions are rather unique to instrumental music, as a rapper can run through twelve different producers on an album and unify the whole thing with their rhymes without much risk of losing the listener.
Shigeto (Zachary Shigeto Saginaw) adheres to this principle masterfully on his new Ghostly International mini-LP, Lineage. A rather accomplished jazz drummer, he chooses a core instrumentation (a warm, round stand-up bass tone, chimes, harp, Rhodes and crisp acoustic drums) with a classic, versatile sound that acknowledges that jazz pedigree and sticks with it. More overtly electronic embellishments, such as the slightly overdriven synth bass and handclaps on “Soaring,” or the muffled vocal sample on “Please Stay”, are tasteful and complement the tonal bubble bath sound palette at the core of Lineage perfectly. Excesses are few and far between, with tracks like “A Child’s Mind” and “Huron River Drive” splitting the difference between wonderfully understated hip-hop beats and fantastically efficient, egoless jazz performances. Lineage is mature, hypnotic and groovy- it feels much longer than its half-hour running time, and still not long enough. You’ll nod your head to the beats, but they’re nearly subliminal- the propulsive motion is buried well below the shimmering surface.
With an evocative title like Lineage and artwork featuring Saginaw’s grandfather’s house in Hiroshima and of the man himself in an internment camp circa World War II, it would be easy to make a bunch of mostly unfounded inferences about what this album ‘means,’ or about what Saginaw’s ‘trying to say.’ It’s clearly a personal piece of work, elegant and serene but with a palpable emotional weight. The beauty of instrumental music is its implied invitation to the listener to fill in the blanks, to ‘choose your own adventure.’ The sense of place merely provides a setting for that adventure, and Lineage has a very distinct one.