J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984.

Label: BBE.

Although the internet has made the world a much smaller place, and allowed record buyers to discover the delights of music from all over the world, still there are many music fans who refuse to try new types of music. It doesn’t matter whether they’re interested in avant-garde, pop, psychedelia, rock or soul still they would rather stick to the music they know best. In doing so, they miss out on a huge amount of new, exciting and groundbreaking music. Especially when it comes to jazz.

Recently, an article in well known music magazine referred to the exciting and ambitious jazz music currently being recorded and released all over Scandinavia. That has been the case for over fifty years, and since the sixties and seventies, Scandinavia, and Norway in particular, has been a hotbed for jazz. It’s given the world groundbreaking artists like Terje Rypdal, Jan Garbarek, Karin Krog, Arild Andersen and Radka Toneff to name but a few. However, Norway isn’t alone when it comes to producing pioneering jazz musicians.

It’s a similar case in Japan, where the late-sixties through to the early eighties was a crucial period for the development of modern jazz. During that period, many Japanese composers and musicians and bands released ambitious and innovative music that astounded those who heard it. This included the Koichi Matsukaze Trio, Eiji Nakayama, Takao Uematsu, Mitsuaki Katayama, Takeo Moriyama and Kiyoshi Sugimoto who feature on J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 which was recently released by BBE. Critics and record buyers on hearing this music were amazed how far Japanese jazz had come in such a short space of time.

It was only twenty or thirty years earlier that Japanese music fans were banned from listening to jazz during the World War II. However, after Japan’s defeat and unconditional surrender in August 1945, the wartime ban on jazz was lifted. 

Jazz fans were now able to hear jazz on the radio, and watch the allied forces bands play jazz in concert halls across Japan. Some of the bands featured some of the top American jazz musicians who were serving their country. Sometimes, these musicians spent time collaborating with local jazz musicians who were keen to learn from some of the names they had only heard on the radio. However, in 1952 when the allied forces left Japan, and returned home musicians like Frank Foster, Harold Lamb and Oliver Nelson had formed firm friendships with local jazzers. By then, they had played an important part in the cultural rebirth of Japan.

Left to their own devices, a new era began for Japanese musicians who were determined to make up for lost time. Musically there had been no winners after six years of war. While jazz had been banned in Japan during the war, many British and American jazz musicians had been called up and were serving their country. Many jazz musicians had spent the war in army bands where they were usually out of harm’s way. Now they had returned home, and like their Japanese counterparts were making up for lost time.

By the mid-fifties, a jazz scene had developed in Japan, during what was later referred to as the “funky period.” However, much of the jazz music being made in Japan had been influenced by American jazz and particularly the West Coast cool jazz and East Coast hard bop. Many Japanese musicians were collecting albums on Blue Note and Prestige which heavily influenced them. It would only be later that some would find their own voice. 

Meanwhile, many of the top American jazz musicians no longer serving in the US Army, and had returned home. Some joined new or existing bands while some musicians put together new bands. Initially, they returned to their local circuit where they tried to pickup where they had left off. This changed a few years later.

In the late-fifties and early sixties, many of these musicians who had played in Japan during World War II were keen to return to a country where so many loved and appreciated jazz music. They made the long journey to Japan where they were reunited with some old friends.

During this period, Miles Davis, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and  Horace Silver all made the long journey to Japan where they received a warm and enthusiastic welcome. Whether any of these legendary musicians were aware at the time, they were playing a part in the cultural rebirth of Japan. Soon, many Japanese jazz musicians weren’t just content to copy Miles Davis, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver sonically, but were determined copy them stylistically. Before long, Japanese  jazz musicians were soon sporting the same preppy Ivy League clothes as their American counterparts. 

Despite many people enjoying the visits of American jazz musicians, the Japanese authorities heard that some musicians had been arrested on drugs offences. They tightened the law as they didn’t want musicians with drug convictions visiting the new Japan and corrupting their youth. However, with the laws tightened, much fewer American jazz musicians visited Japan. Those that visited, played in packed concert halls and continue to influence Japanese jazzers. 

Not all Japanese jazz musicians were inspired by their American counterparts by the mid-sixties as homegrown musicians were making their presence felt. Especially pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist and flautist Sadao Watanabe who were among the leading lights of the vibrant Japanese jazz scene.

Toshiko Akiyoshi had been invited to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1955. However, it took a year of wrangling, diplomacy and arm twisting before Toshiko Akiyoshi was able to enrol at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1956. By then, Toshiko Akiyoshi was already making a name for herself outside of her native Japan and would enjoy a long and successful career.

Five years later, Sadao Watanabe released his eponymous debut album on King Records. The following year, 1962, Sadao Watanabe followed in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s footsteps and enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He too was on the cusp of a successful career.

Back home in Japan, many other Japanese jazz musicians were content to draw inspiration from their American counterparts, but decided to forge a new style of modern jazz befitting the new modern Japan. Leading this movement in the late-sixties was Sadao Watanabe whose music was progressive, experimental,  exciting and ambitious and reflected the musical influences ad genre he had absorbed. Soon, Sadao Watanabe was influencing some of the musicians who were at the forefront of a jazz revolution.

Some of Japan’s top up-and-coming jazz musicians joined Sadao Watanabe’s band, where they learned from one of the country’s top jazzers. For these musicians this was akin to a musical apprenticeship, before they headed off to play their part in the jazz revolution that took place between the late-sixties and early eighties. It’s documented on J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984.

Opening J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 is Earth Mother by the Koichi Matsukaze Trio featuring pianist Toshiyuki Daitoku. It’s taken from the album Earth Mother which was released in February 1978 on ALM Records. This was the much-anticipated followup At The Room 427 which was released in 1976. However, Earth Mother was a much more ambitious and innovative album, where push musical boundaries are pushed to the limits, and sometimes, almost beyond on a truly inventive, exciting  and peerless example of Japanese spiritual jazz.

One of the rarest albums in the history of Japanese jazz is Tachibana Volume 1 which was released by the Tohru Aizawa Quartet in 1975. It was a private press released which was funded by hotelier Jiro Tachibana, who spared no expenses. It was recorded at a hall owned by Jiro Tachibana, who had paid for the best equipment, top musicians and a top recording engineer to record the album. They recorded five tracks, including Dead Letter which is an intense and powerful  example of cascading spiritual jazz. It’s the highlights of Tachibana Volume 1 which when it was released in 1975, Jiro Tachibana used the album his business card.

In 1978, bassist and bandleader Eiji Nakayama released his debut album Aya’s Samba on the Johnny’s Disk label. On the title-track Aya’s Samba which was recorded on February the ‘2nd’ 1978, Eiji Nakayama plays a languid, mellow standup bass and is joined by a glistening Fender Rhodes and percussion. Together they samba their way through an enchanting track that is guaranteed to brighten up even the dullest day.

When jazz saxophonist Takao Uematsu released his new album Straight Ahead, on Trio Records in 1977, it opened with one of his own compositions White Fire. It features a breathtaking masterclass in fusion from this multitalented sextet who play with speed, accuracy and fluidity. In doing so, they set the bar high for the rest of Straight Ahead.

Evolution which was released by Streetnoise Records in 1984 as an ambitious genre-melting album from the Shintaro Quintet. One of the highlights of Evolution which features the swinging and strident modal jazz of the eleven minute epic A Blind Man which waltzes along as this talented five piece showcase their skills. Sadly, Evolution  failed to find the audience it deserved, and the Shintaro Quintet didn’t release a sophomore album.

It was in 1979 when Johnny’s Disk released Mitsuaki Katayama’s debut album First Flight. The talented trio had recorded five tracks including Unknown Point which was the standout track. Playing an important role in the sound and success of the track Mitsuaki Katayama’s rapid fire drums which relentlessly and urgently power the arrangement along. They’re augmented by Kishio Kitahara’s fuzzy bass and Kichiro Sugino’s swinging piano. The trio throw a curveball as the track heads in the direction of a samba, before they get back on message in time for the solos, during what’s another groundbreaking track.

In 1983, Japanese thirty-eight year old jazz drummer Takeo Moriyama released his new album East Plants on the VAP label. It featured Kaze where Takeo Moriyama leads an intelligent and inventive band as they lock into a groove, and breeze along, as they showcase their considerable skills and play with freedom, fluidity and invention drawing inspiration from jazz’s past and present to make the music of tomorrow. Thirty-five years later, and this timeless track that is one of the compilation’s highlights.

Fumio Karashima opened his debut 1976 debut album Piranha, which was released in Whynot with a cover of  Little Island. This is the perfect vehicle for pianist Fumio Karashima to showcase his skills as he plays with a gracefulness and flair and flamboyance. Meanwhile, his band play around him, taking carer not to overpower the bandleader on what’s one of the highlights of Piranha.

Kiyoshi Sugimoto was one of the top Japanese jazz guitarists to emerge during the seventies. A reminder of this is Live At Mingos Musico, a private pressing released on Kiva in 1973. One of the highlights is Long Neal which was written by Takao Uematsu and thematically is similar to White Fire. It’s another spellbinding example of top class fusion where Kiyoshi Sugimoto unleashes a masterclass on guitar, What better way is there to close J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984?

Regardless of whether you’re a veteran of many a previous J Jazz compilation or album, or are newcomers to Japanese jazz, then J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 which was recently released by BBE, is a compilation that anyone with even a passing interest in the genre should be looking to add to their collection. After all, this carefully curated compilation oozes quality and features some truly talented Japanese jazzers who were around between the late-sixties and early eighties. These artists include some of the giants of Japanese jazz and other artists who never enjoyed the commercial success their talent warranted. However, they all played their part in reinvention Japanese jazz.

J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 features nine artists who released ambitious, exiting and innovative jazz music, which pushed musical boundaries to its limits, and sometimes, almost beyond. Sadly, that music never always found the audience it deserved, and it’s only relatively recently, in the internet age when a new audience discovered the delights of Japanese jazz from this golden age which is featured on J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984.

J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984.

1 Comment

  1. steve smollett

    the problem with this and volume 2 is that the lp version has more tracks so the folks who buy the cd or digital copies DONT get the full album…so unfair,,,penalised for not having a record player..sucks

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