Riley Lee is treading on hallowed ground by calling this new double-CD recording Music for Zen Meditation. The title is less generic than it seems; 40 years ago, jazz musician Tony Scott recorded a classic LP of the same name, improvising on clarinet in the company of shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and koto players. But even those familiar with Scott’s landmark recording (which has been reissued on CD) will not confuse its beguiling sound and atmospheric intention with the deeper, contemplative nature of Lee’s latest project. Like an ingenious stage designer, Scott set a splendidly evocative scene, but while you could slip into a contemplative mood to its soundtrack, it was hard to escape the flavor of exotica and forget that Scott was coming from a jazz direction.
On the other hand, the Texas-born Lee, the first non-Japanese grand master (dai shihan) of shakuhachi, immerses himself in a pure musical meditation, to which the listener can either bear witness or surrender without a sense of cultural distance or dislocation.
Disc 1 is a program of 11 solo performances in which Lee’s velvet timbre and gentle melodic permutations embody the soothing spirit of titles such as “Divine Ecstasy,” “Tranquil Resonations,” and “Inner Quiet.” On disc 2, he plays 11 elegantly overdubbed duets with himself on pieces with equally evocative titles–“Whispers of Eternity,” “Echo of the Sacred,” “Between the Stillness.” His exquisitely focused and even tone can be taken as a signal, like a meditation bell, to enter a selfless space of calm and quiet, a reminder that in the hearing there is only what is heard, or it can be appreciated more intellectually in subtly intriguing musical terms.
Contributing Editor Derk Richardson writes for Yoga Journal, Acoustic Guitar magazine, and SFGate (www.sfgate.com). He lives in Oakland, California, where he studies the Japanese movement practice shintaido.