Naoko Sakata – Infinity
The lushly improvised piano of Naoko Sakata is guided by tarot and a musical journey of self-
knowledge on her new album Infinity, her second for Anna von Hausswolf's Pomperipossa
Records. Infinity captures once again the magnetic energy of her playing, which sits boldly
outside of genre boxes. "Playing is mystic for me," she says. "I play until the real world is left
behind, until I don't feel or think about anything; about people's judgements; about myself;
about the world."
The artwork for Infinity incudes the kanji sign for sky 空 and galaxy 宙 on the album cover,
symbolising the skyward soaring in the album's sound. When she was playing, Naoko says
she had a sense in which she was ascending; rising upward into an infinite space. Spiritual
guidance for the album came from the tarot – she often pulled The Star and the The Chariot
around the time of recording – the latter was significant: a card depicting a knight in yogic
pose, on a chariot flanked by sphinx. "This card came to me so many times. He has a mask,
and he's a soldier, but this card asks: who are you? Who are you without the armour? "
These questions, and the self-knowledge they demand, is the album's engine. It is a journey
towards unmasking our true selves, and a symbol of strength that fuels a confident leap
Recorded over two solid days, Infinity is wholly improvised, with no plans made or
intentions set before the recording. Naoko first began performing in this way in 2018, and
Infinity is already her third solo album, following 2021's Dancing Spirits and 2020's Inner
Planets. "I felt a lot of progression from the last album to this one," she says, "I learned so
much about numbers and tarot, and was asking questions about myself. I recorded until
midnight – capturing everything without stopping, recording from a place of no judgement."
She looks to nobody for inspiration and instead channels the energies she feels around her,
which are woven into her playing as she becomes one with the music. "It almost feels like I
become vibrations or particles – like I become the music itself," she says. I become totally
consumed by the energy in the sound, and the music and me becomes the same thing; I
have my own frequency that becomes music."
The improvised tracks are non-sequential, numbered instead for their place in the session.
Across six extended improvisations Naoko channels energies into rippling piano and
glittering high notes; at times she drops into frantic low end, hammering at the keys with an
existential fervour, before soaring across the keys to draw out delicate and airy patterns.
Heavy chords are repeated; her playing moves glittering and fluid like water, laments are
sketched before being overcome. There are moments when the feelings became so intense
she began to sing. Closing piece "Improvisation 13" was the final piece from the recording
session, its contemplative and easy playing articulating a moment in which Naoko made
peace with herself, as top notes dance lightfooted on a gently repeating chord.
Naoko's improvised instrumental music is confidently itself; she has created a genre all of
her own, with an emotional depth that puts it outside of easy pop boxes, and a freedom
that sits outside of traditional forms of jazz or classical. Music has always been something
close and natural to her identity. She knew there was a place within reach where herself and
the music were not separate, and which she wanted to channel, but her parents and
teachers had other ideas. She has rejected the confinement of the expectations placed on
her, and walked her own path since she was young, when being herself was often
interpreted as rebellion. At one point, her self-expression through the way she dressed led
to her having to leave school. "Everyone called me rebellious or experimental, she says "but
I was just doing what was natural. I wanted to be true to me." The same was true in her
piano playing. Her mother was a piano teacher and she has played the piano since she was
3, but never wanted to read music. Instead, she would learn by heart. She moved into jazz
to look for freer modes of playing, but found the same conventions and imitative
performances as she had found in classical music. It wasn't until she left Japan and moved to
Sweden, settling in Gothenberg, that her unique style of genreless, free-form
improvisational playing could emerge.
There may be no lyrics and no titles, but in the absence of words Naoko speaks louder than
most in the clarity and intensity of her playing, through the connection she creates between
herself and the piano. Infinity is a captivating emotional journey of knowledge and self-
discovery, where the listener might find something of themselves in the honesty and
authenticity Naoko channels in her singular and invigorating music.