The potential problem with being a child protégé is the unwarranted belief that skill with one instrument or style of music automatically translates into skill with another. On Agatsuma’s second release, Beyond, this is illustrated most clearly despite his considerable skill on the shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument. The shamisen itself is a banjo sounding, long-necked, three-string instrument used in Japanese theater, folk songs and for other accompaniments. Agatsuma takes this instrument and updates its usage by melding it with more Western-sounding styles, such as rock, jazz, Latin rhythms and new age. All instrumentals, the music on this album displays Agatsuma’s prowess with his complex runs and musical imagination. Unfortunately, much of the album finds Agatsuma accompanied by tracks that are little more than rote, by-numbers sonic wallpaper. Tepid, lukewarm smooth jazz trappings too often rear their stylistic head and corrode the soul out of some of these tracks. When Agatsuma does decide to kick out the jams, as he does on “Heartbeat,” the results are clearly palpable.
One suspects that Agatsuma should decide not to be all things to all people, and approach one particular niche at a time. However, I suspect in a live setting that Agatsuma is dominating in a way that few performers can be. Let us hope that his next album is a live album with no overdubs.