Gato Libre – Neko (2017)

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feature photo: Bryan Murray

Overcoming the loss of a key guitarist is nothing new for Japan’s Natsuki Tamura and Satoko Fujii; Kelly Churko’s death dealt an unexpected blow to Fujii’s Orchestra Tokyo a few years back. Gato Libre’s founding guitar player Kazuhiko Tsumura entered the afterlife in 2015, coming just four years after the founding bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu had passed. In line with their unconventional but inspired thinking, the trumpeter Tamura and accordionist Fujii replaced the bass player with a trombonist, Yasuko Kaneko, and the new version of the quartet made a triumphant record called DuDu in 2014.

When tragedy struck again, Tamura — encouraged by his wife Fujii — made another call down a path less travelled: he decided they should carry on as a trio. Neko, out June 16, 2017 via Libra Records, therefore, is the second consecutive response to a big loss.

Gato Libre records are always solemn affairs, but this one is perhaps more so with the void left conspicuously unfilled by the remaining members. Tsumura’s nostalgic-filled nylon strings are missed and he lent the group a Spanish flavor that lived up to the combo’s Spanish name. Neko deals with the loss by de-emphasizing the ethnic folk flavors in favor of songs that largely ignore traditional forms and play music that’s rooted more firmly in what the players are feeling.

The first outward signs of sorrow come out of Tamura’s pure trumpet on the opening salvo “Tama”; he seems to be searching for answers with Kaneko’s sympathetically complementing lines, while Fujii’s accordion takes deep, careful breaths.

The simple and deliberate melody of “Momo” is elegantly stated by Tamura alone, then inconspicuously enjoined by Fujii and harmonized by Kaneko. Ever the master of the extended form, Tamura takes us down a path of subtly shifting emotions, never crossing the same spot twice, reaching a peak with resonant notes closely repeated by Kaneko.

Fujii sets the table this time, for “Mii.” Using single notes, she engages in quiet dialog with Tamura. The rascally side of Tamura comes out to play, plunger and all, for “Hime” as Kaneko’s trombone plays the ‘straight’ man.

“Yuzu” is launched with yet another gorgeous Tamura soliloquy very similar to the one he recited on “Momo.” Fujii’s steps up front after Tamura’s turn to express a few personal thoughts on accordion of her own, Finally, Kaneko reaches deep inside himself and brings out complex emotions simply stated.

The three layer on top of each other on “Tora,” using Kaneko’s simple two-note trombone bass line as a foundation, but soon leap off (temporarily) to explore in the freest moment of this album.

Through death comes transformation. Gato Libre is a band whose body has changed, but its original heart perseveres.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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