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Conor Fynes
3 stars 'Ichinen' - Agora (61/100)

I've really been getting into Agora lately. if asked a week ago, I probably would have dismissed them as just another one of the countless obscure prog and fusion bands I probably would never have the time to listen ton. In any case, it was a great thing I did stumble across them; even though they only released a Live in Montreux performance recording and one studio album 2, the chemistry and compelling atmosphere on those albums made Agora a rare find for me, one I've since been introducing to friends and fans of fusion with enthusiasm. While an 'unreleased materials' album made available nearly four decades after a band's last activity wouldn't normally strike my interest save for the most hyped cases, my existing Agora kick had me excited to check out Ichinen. Though not a 'real' full-length by any means, this collection of recordings would hopefully provide 2 with some shade of the in-studio follow-up it deserved. More than that, I read that it would give some indication as to the band's current incarnation. While it's clear that their chemistry and musicianship hasn't faltered over the years, I'm finding myself fairly disappointed by the compilation. While there is a sampling of the lively 'Agora sound' I loved in their classic '70's output, Agora seem to have distanced themselves from progressive fusion. Instead, their newer recordings veer towards sleepy background smooth jazz, the sort of innocuous wallpaper jazz that would sooner put me to sleep than inspire me as a listener. As capably as they perform it, it doesn't do much for me.

Ichinen is the Japanese word for 'persistence' (Yes, I looked it up!) and in the case of a compilation of recordings mustered over the course of decades, it seems a fitting title. I was really wondering listening to the fantastic chemistry of their first two albums why Agora would have ever seen fit to break up. It turns out they were just working undercover, albeit intermittently. True to expectation, Ichinen is terribly inconsistent, both in style and direction. Generally speaking however, the offerings included on Ichinen can be separated into two categories. The first (and most prevalent) is this unplugged smooth jazz approach. Agora have never been strangers to the use of acoustic guitars, melody or reservation in their music, but those elements were balanced out with complex interplay and variety. Although Agora's acoustic smooth jazz is perfectly listenable, it feels like a big part of the reasons I loved the band (or jazz in general) have been emancipated. Rather then the directed explorations of Live in Montreux and 2, Agora have written songs built around middle-of-the-road melodies and the apparent aim of fostering easy listening. There is enjoyment to be had with this newer incarnation of Agora ("Sensei" is great for melody, "Oceano" is a great piano piece) and I don't think there are any clearcut weaknesses, but it may only be because Agora have played it incredibly safe with this acoustic guitar stuff. There's probably a market out there for this sort of tasteful jazz, but it's clearly not for me. All I can think of when I'm hearing it is the Mall Tycoon soundtrack.

It takes over half the album to get there, but once Agora get to their other, 'proggy' side, things start to really heat up. For what it lacks in creative naming, "Progressive Suite" is a total highlight, and sounds like what the Agora follow-up I was hoping for should have sounded like. Prog was always an undercurrent running behind Agora's jazz and rock blend, but the latter half of Ichinen makes a concerted effort to bring that side out front and centre. There's time signature [%*!#]ery, Zeuhl-ish female vocalizations and echoes of Zappa in the guitar work; best of all, I can hear the band chemistry more clearly than with the innocuous acoustic material. Possibly in some gesture of compromise, the compilation's final track "Piramide Di Domani, Cavalcata Solare" mixes elements of the prog with the laid-back acoustic guitar, reimagining a pair of classic period tracks as a single would-be finale. Surprisingly, it turns out to be just as satisfying a listen as "Progressive Suite". Gianni Perri's cello is a great touch to this closing piece, and it probably doesn't hurt that "Piraide Di Domani" was one of my favourite cuts from 2 either!

I feel mixed about this one. It seems like Agora are at a tentative crossroads, and regardless of what years these tracks were recorded in, Ichinen is a reflection of that. It's difficult to say I'm really optimistic about a new Agora album, if chances are high it's going to sound like the first half of this one. Hopefully (just hopefully!) Agora will look at the latter 'proggy' side of this compilation not as a historical note, but as a foundation with which to build amazing things in the future. Whatever the future holds for Agora, I will eagerly anticipate the release of another album.

Report this review (#1197324)
Posted Monday, June 23, 2014 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars This is an album I liked immediately and continue to find eminently enjoyable. Almost every song offers me reminders of some of the greatest jazz fusion artists ever: JEAN-LUC PONTY, DARYL STUERMER, RETURN TO FOREVER, AL DI MEOLA, CHICK COREA, PAUL WINTER, CODONA, RALPH TOWNER, DOMINA CATRINA LEE, JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, WEATHER REPORT. Plus there are songs with vocal touches that make Agorą unique unto themselves ("Ichinen," "Sensei," "Star Strings," "Tre Maggio," "Oceano") There are many styles of jazz represented here, including traditional jazz ("Oceano"), Paul Winter Consort-like jazz ("Piramide di Domani"), Windham Hill jazz ("Wood of Guitar"), World Music jazz ("Ichinen," "Sensei"), New Age jazz ("Star Strings"), Jean-Luc Ponty jazz ("Serra San Quirico"), Hawaiian jazz ("Star Strings"); and funky Weather Report-like electric jazz fusion ("Costa dell'Est" and "Progressive Suite"). Almost all of it is beautiful, soul-soothing, and virtuosically performed.

5 Star songs: "Serra San Quirico," "Ichinen," "Sensei," "Star Strings," "Oceano," "Wood of Guitar," "Progressive Suite," and "Piramide di Domani/Cavalcata Solare."

A 4.5 star album, rated down for over-familiarity.

Report this review (#1218981)
Posted Monday, July 21, 2014 | Review Permalink
4 stars After a long hiatus, in 2002 Agorą came to life again on the initiative of original members Ovidio Urbani (sax), Renato Gasparini (guitar), Mauro Mencaroni (drums) and Lucio Cesari (bass) who teamed up with Alessandra Pacheco (vocals), Giovanni Ceccarelli (piano) and Maurizio Mercuri (guitar). Along the years the new line up went through some changes and it wasn't until 2014 that Agorą finally released a new album entitled "Ichinen" on the independent Aereostella-Immaginifica label. It's a kind of compendium of the band's activity after the 1976 studio album "Agorą 2" where you can find some new arrangements of old pieces, some previously unreleased tracks from the late seventies recorded before the split up and some brand new compositions. According to the liner notes, "the music was inspired by the fundamental Buddhist teachings of Nichiren Daishonin and the Human Revolution of the individual with its emphasis on the value and respect of the sanctity of life and the environment" and the art cover tries to convey this concept...

The charming opener "Serra San Quirico" is a shortened acoustic version of a piece from their 1975 debut album "Live In Montreux" and was recorded with a line up featuring Ovidio Urbani (sax), Renato Gasparini (acoustic guitar), Gabriele Possenti (acoustic guitar), Gianni Pieri (cello) and Lucio Cesari (acoustic bass). It sounds very different from the original version with the interaction between the acoustic guitars in the forefront, soaring lines of cello and sax and a calm, dreamy mood...

"Ichinen" is a new track recorded by the line up featuring Ovidio Urbani (sax), Renato Gasparini (guitar, vocals), Mauro Mencaroni (drums), Lucio Cesari (acoustic bass), Alessandra Pacheco (vocals), Giovanni Ceccarelli (piano) and Karl Potter (congas, djambč). Here the wordless voices are used just as another instrument and take you to exotic landscapes where you can relax and think about the meaning of life... The following "Sensei" was recorded by the same line up (without Karl Potter) and is a delicate, reflective piece dedicated to Japanese Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda...

"Work In Progress" is a nice duet for acoustic guitar played by Renato Gasparini and Gabriele Possenti, then the line up featuring Ovidio Urbani (sax), Renato Gasparini (guitar, vocals), Mauro Mencaroni (drums), Lucio Cesari (acoustic bass), Alessandra Pacheco (vocals), Giovanni Ceccarelli (piano) and Karl Potter (congas, djambč) come back for "Starstrings", a reflective piece evoking the inner power that is hidden into everyone's body and the ability to use it...

"Istante per istante" (Moment by moment) is another beautiful acoustic guitar duet with Mediterranean flavours, this time performed by Renato Gasparini and Maurizio Mercuri, then it's the turn of the Oriental scents of "Tre Maggio" (Third of May), performed in trio by Renato Gasparini (guitar, vocals), Alessandra Pacheco (vocals), and Giovanni Ceccarelli (piano, tabla).

The slow, melancholic "Oceano" (Ocean) tries to take you on an inner journey in the depths of your ego and features Renato Gasparini (guitar, vocals), Mauro Mencaroni (drums), Lucio Cesari (acoustic bass), Alessandra Pacheco (vocals) and Giovanni Ceccarelli (piano, tabla) while the following "Wood Of Guitar" is a good dreamy track played by Gabriele Possenti (guitar, bass) that reminds me of Will Ackerman...

Next two tracks come out from the late seventies sessions of the line up featuring Renato Gasparini (Roland guitar synth), Ovidio Urbani (sax), Roberto Bacchiocchi (piano Rhodes), Robert Clark (electric bass) and Massimo Manzi (drums). "Progressive Suite" is full of positive energy and in the booklet you can read a quote from Nicheren Daishonin that well describes its feeling, "winter always turns into spring", while the lively "Costa dell'est" (East Coast) could recall Weather Report...

The medley "Piramide di domani - Cavalcata solare" (Pyramid of tomorrow - Solar ride) ends the album by blending two tracks from Agorą's 1976 second album and delivering them in a new interesting acoustic version performed by the line up featuring Ovidio Urbani (sax), Renato Gasparini (acoustic guitar), Gabriele Possenti (acoustic guitar), Gianni Pieri (cello) and Lucio Cesari (acoustic bass).

On the whole, a very good album!

Report this review (#2737986)
Posted Sunday, April 17, 2022 | Review Permalink

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