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Review: Akira Otsuka - First Tear

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First TearBy Joe Ross
Mandomaniacs and acoustic music lovers far and wide will rejoice in knowing that Akira Otsuka has released his first solo album project, First Tear. The eclectic mandolin player"s name is well known among aficionados of that instrument. In fact, Otsuka-san is a frequent contributor of helpful information and advice on the Mandolin Café forum.

Born and raised in Japan, Akira took up mandolin at age 15. His brothers played guitar and banjo. In 1967, Akira and his brother Tsuyoshi (aka "Josh") teamed with a couple other brothers (Saburo and Toshio Watanabe) to form "The Bluegrass 45" and play a small club called Lost City in Kobe, Japan. After Dick Freeland (owner of Rebel Records) came to Japan and heard their music, the band was invited to perform at several U.S. bluegrass festivals from June-Sept. 1971.

During this time, Akira met and befriended mandolin legend John Duffey who produced two LPs for The Bluegrass 45. Akira settled in the Washington, D.C. area and also helped Duffey"s band, The Seldom Scene, when they toured Japan in 1985 and 1991. After the passing of Duffey in December 1996, Akira came to own two of Duffey"s mandolins that are featured on this album – "The Duck" mandolin built by Duffey, and a Gibson F-12 mandolin built in the early 1950s. Dedicating his solo album to the memories of both John and Nancy Duffey, this fine mandolin player demonstrates technique, taste and tonality on material ranging from bluegrass to new acoustic, jazz to soft rock.

Otsuka gets long, beautiful sustain on slower numbers like the opening cut, "White Orchid," and "Prince George"s Mandolin." Performed solo, "Evanston Slide" is dedicated to Jethro Burns. "Pink Special #3" features melodic musical conversations between mandolin and guitar. A live 1998 cut of "Heartaches" from a John Duffey Tribute Show at the Birchmere (Alexandria, Va.) is a crowd-pleaser.

Akira pulls in many of his musical pals, with the album featuring seven guitarists, four bassists, three fiddlers, two banjo-players, and three vocalists. You can"t go wrong with the likes of Tony Rice or David Grier on guitar, Eddie Adcock or Mike Munford on banjo, or Rickie Simpkins on fiddle. Throughout the project, however, it"s always Akira Otsuka who is making the memorable mandolin statements full of character, content and concision.

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