TThe story of Japanese jazz is about music and a movement, but also the state of mind of a nation – a bold vision of a better future after World War II, sounded on piano, drums and brass. Jazz is a distinctly American art form – America’s greatest cultural achievement, in fact, along with hip hop – and a healthy scene was formed in the 1920s and 30s, when American players toured in the clubs of Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka. But Japan had historically been an island nation – its policy on sakoku, which for more than two centuries severely limited contact with the outside world, was only completed in the 1850s – and an increasingly nationalist government that felt jazz diluted Japanese culture began to crack down. By World War II, “enemy music” was banned.
Following the surrender of the country, the occupying forces oversaw radical reforms. American troops had jazz records with them; Japanese musicians took work to entertain the troops. There was a proliferation of jazz cat (cafes), a distinctly Japanese phenomenon where locals could sit and listen to records for as long as they wanted. For some, jazz was the sound of modernity.
In the early post-war years, Japanese musicians essentially copied the Americans they admired. “That’s what you do,” says Mike Higgins, co-curator of the J Jazz reissues series. “You start by imitating, and then you assimilate and then you innovate.”
Higgins and his fellow curator Mike Peden, both British, are longtime collectors who have spent enormous amounts of time tracking records, examining labels, and searching obi-strips (a ribbon of paper wrapped around Japanese LPs). For the past few years, the couple has been working on Japanese jazz re-releases for BBE Records, typically from the late 1960s to the mid-80s, a period of amazing innovation in which a generation of musicians found their own voice. These releases have been part of a broader wave of Japanese jazz from the era re-released to Western ears on labels such as Light in the Attic, Impex and We Release Jazz.
“It’s humiliating that there are a lot of people who are obsessed with this kind of music around the world,” says saxophonist Koichi Matsukaze. Matsukaze’s 1976 album At the Room 427 is to be re-released as part of the J Jazz Masterclass series this month and follows the 2018 re-release of his classic Earth Mother from 1978. “I’m at an older age and I’m still active in my music, “he adds.” All this is my origin. “
To discuss the birth of modern Japanese jazz, Toshiko Akiyoshi forms an important base. The pianist was discovered playing in a club in 1952 by touring star Oscar Peterson and would continue to have a glittering career at home and in the state. Akiyoshi was the first Japanese artist to break away from simply copying American artists and developing a distinctive sound and identity that incorporated Japanese harmonies and instruments. At the age of 92, she is still active today.
In the late 1960s, the example of Akiyoshi, the eclectic saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and other young artists spurred them to evolve away from Blue Note mimicry towards free jazz, fusion funk, spiritual, modal and bebop. These daring virtuosos implanted rock and electronic elements or took influence from afrobeat and flamenco music. The shift from manned playing to free-flowing individualism was reflected in a move away from sharp suits to a more unpretentious look, and collaboration became important: Take pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, who wrote and recorded with other artists, to the point where he was an almost guru -like. figure in the scene.
The technical skills of the Japanese recording studios ensured that many of the LPs were among the best-sounding jazz records ever recorded, and although it would be wrong to use an “independent good, major bad” binary (major record companies produced plenty far and wide music too), the 1970s also saw the emergence of smaller, private labels in Japan, such as Three Blind Mice, which offered additional opportunities for individualistic artists to record.
“You started to sense a drive away from the short-form hard-bop tracks to more open music in free form – actually quite psychedelic,” Higgins explains. “They dropped the suit and dressed just the way they wanted to dress. They’re influenced by what Miles [Davis] do in his electric music, but they write more of their own material and improvise more. “
Asked if it was his intention to push the boundaries of Japanese jazz on his classic album First and Mine – two projects released in 1970 that projected this new, uninhibited approach to the genre – saxophonist Kohsuke Mine says: “I did not think so. at all. I think we were just recording what came naturally at that time. “Matsukaze, however, saw his music as an active rebellion against his musical ancestors.
“In Japan, there is this older and subordinate culture,” he explains. “In the music scene, there are your superiors who say, ‘Oh, you have to play Charlie Parker.’” I was very young at the time and still growing [musically]; there were student demonstrations and society in Japan was very unstable. That kind of spirit was also there in Japanese jazz. I was very anti-establishment. Some people would say, ‘You should play standards’, but I hated doing it. I would rebel against that. At the time, I considered myself an outsider. ”
Matsukaze’s music encapsulates the power and passion of the era. The title track from Earth Mother – full of melodic hooks, elastic baselines and zigzagging solos – started the very first J Jazz collection, and At the Room 427 goes further back in time. Matsukaze’s debut album was recorded live in November 1975 in front of a small audience in a classroom at Chuo University. On Little Drummer, Matsukaze and his little band quarrel intensely with their instruments in a way that almost sounds like they are dueling with each other. It forms an exciting, improvisational composition, like a motorist blindfolded on the highway who sets foot on the floor but never crashes. He might have rejected the expectations of playing the classics, but Matsukaze excels at the Billie Holiday classic Lover Man, as his meandering, sensual saxophone howl leads the band like a flaming torch.
The mid-1980s marked the end of the period covered by the J Jazz series. “For me, it becomes less interesting [after that], they play MOTHER kind of stuff, ”says Higgins. “All digital technology is coming in. The sound of drums is changing, keyboards are changing. There’s a general sonic tone, the brilliance, across the music that appeals to me less.”
In the years since, Europe and the United States have indulged in a decades-long fascination with Japanese culture that does not seem to be waning. The popularity of anime is at a record high, while there has been a new interest in the Japanese city pop genre in the late 1970s and 80s. Now it is Japanese jazz that is ripe for excavation.
“Many of these albums were hardly available outside of Japan at the time,” explains Stephan Armleder of We Release Jazz, but the advent of the Internet “gave us this insane access to a gigantic archive database of music: blogs, bulletin boards, YouTube, Discogs.”
Putting together a re-release is not a straightforward business, with rightsholders to be traced and dust-blown decades-old contracts: it took two years for Peden and Higgins to secure the license for each song on the first volume of J Jazz. But it’s worth it for the conservation acts, such as the Tohru Aizawa Quartet’s album Tachibana, which was re-released in 2018. Higgins believes that only about 200 copies were ever printed, and many of them were used by the man who funded the project – the title Tachibana – as a kind of business card to promote its hotels. It is easy to imagine that such a record will be lost over time.
Another classic that found a new life online is Ryo Fukui’s album Scenery: a spread of the 1976 LP, uploaded in 2015, has nearly 12 million YouTube plays. The pianist’s playing is smooth and nuanced as he navigates American classics like It Could Happen to You. “Now I just need to become the kind of person who hosts sophisticated dinner parties,” a commentator wrote on YouTube.
“I’m amazed that all these young jazz fans around the world found out and really liked Ryo Fukui’s music,” says his widow, Yasuko Fukui, speaking to me from her jazz club Slowboat, which she ran with Ryo until his death. in 2016 “I am sincerely glad this is happening.”
Fukui lived in the northern city of Sapporo and was focused on sharpening his craft when a director from Trio Records happened to catch a live performance of Ryo Fukui Trio while on a business trip. “Initially, Ryo did not think his skills were good enough to be admitted, so he did not quickly say yes,” says Yasuko. “But the instructor was persistent.” Fukui followed it up a year later with the album Mellow Dream, but spent the rest of his life recording only sporadically. He focused on running the Slowboat Club in Sapporo, where he performed as many as four times a week. Eventually, fans who knew his work from YouTube began to show up at the club.
Fukui died in 2016. Two years later, Scenery was supplanted on vinyl by We Released Jazz. “Ryo Fukui embodies for us the magic of Japanese jazz,” says Armleder. “He combines a genuine respect for tradition and the history of jazz with a dedication to perfecting his skills and adding his own flair and passion.”
The popularity of rediscovery like this means that the price of original Japanese jazz presses has gone through the roof. Higgins, one of the main characters driving this interest, says that today he could not afford to build his personal collection, although I point out the downside is that the value of his collection has increased. “That’s one of the reasons we want to reissue them,” he says of rising costs. “It’s nice to have an original copy, but I’ve never subscribed to the idea of sitting in a jazz bunker and grabbing my originals. I want people to hear them. “
These re-releases may be under pressure on brand new vinyl, but between the grooves you still notice change. It is the sound of catharsis for these musicians for whom no limits were above test.
Thanks to Kensuke Hidaka for working as a translator.
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