CULT CLASSIC: RYO FUKUI-MELLOW DREAM.
Cult Classic: Ryo Fukui- Mellow Dream.
Ryo Fukui, who was born in Biratori, Hokkaido, in Japan, on the ‘1st’ of June 1948, was a late starter when it came to the piano and unlike most of the musicians he encountered during a career that spanned five decades, had never learnt to play the instrument as a child. Instead, Ryo Fukui had just turned twenty-two in 1970, when he announced that he wanted to learn to play the piano, and was going to teach himself.
If Ryo Fukui’s friends thought that his decision to teach himself to play the piano was bound to end in tears, they were soon proved wrong as he turned out to be a talented pianist. So much so, that the self-taught pianist was good enough to embark upon a career as a professional musician, playing the music that he loved…jazz.
As September 1976 dawned, twenty-eight year old Ryo Fukui was living in Sapporo, where he led his own trio who were a familiar sight in local jazz clubs. Ryo Fukui had also just signed to Trio Records, and was preparing to record his debut album Scenery.
For his debut album Ryo Fukui had written the title-track Scenery, and the rest of the album comprised cover versions. This included Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s It Could Happen To You, Billy Eckstine’s I Want To Talk About You, Hideo Ichikawa’s Early Summer, Ann Ronell’s Willow Weep For Me and Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert’s Autumn Leaves. These tracks became Scenery, which Ryo Fukui planned to record at Yamaha Hall, Sapporo.
The recording of Scenery took place at Yamaha Hall, Sapporo, on the ‘7th’ of September 1976, pianist Ryo Fukui leading a trio that featured drummer Yoshinori Fukui and bassist Satoshi Denpo. Taking charge of production were Masataka Ito and Ryo Fukui who worked well together, and Scenery like many jazz albums was recorded quickly, with just a day spent laying down the tracks. This was how countless classic albums had been recorded during the fifties and sixties.
Scenery was released in late 1976, and was regarded as an important album by Japanese jazz critics, who called the album a game-changing release that was one of the finest of the seventies. Despite receiving widespread critical acclaim in Japan, Scenery passed American jazz fans by, and they missed out on hearing what was a remarkable debut album.
Ryo Fukui opens his 1976 debut album Scenery with It Could Happen To You, which was the first of four oft-covered classics that he set about reinventing. It was a similar case on I Want To Talk About You, Willow Weep For Me and Autumn Leaves where with the help of drummer Yoshinori Fukui and bassist Satoshi Denpo, pianist Ryo Fukui ensures that these classics take on new life and meaning. This isn’t easy given who often these tracks had been recorded by 1976. However, the twenty-eight year old pianist who had only been playing for six years by the time he recorded Scenery plays with maturity that belies his relative inexperience.
For much of the time, his playing is smooth, subtle and effortless as his fingers glide and flit across the piano keyboard as he plays with fluidity ensuring the songs swing. Other times, he plays with speed and energy, and isn’t afraid to improvise and innovate. Stylistically, Ryo Fukui sometimes sounds like Bill Evans, and especially during the energetic modal rework of Early Summer. By then, Ryo Fukui and his trio play with a newfound urgency, before closing the album with the title-track Scenery. It was Ryo Fukui’s only original composition on Scenery and is a reminder of a talented bandleader, composer and pianist as he began his career with game-changing album which is a glorious fusion of bop, cool jazz and modal jazz.
Buoyed by the critical reaction and success of Scenery, Ryo Fukui continued to hone his skills as a pianist, and before long, he was already beginning work on his sophomore album Mellow Dream.
While Scenery only featured one Ryo Fukui composition, he wrote half of the tracks on his much-anticipated sophomore album Mellow Dream. This included the title-track Mellow Dream, Baron Potato Blues and Horizon, which were joined by covers of Victor Young’s My Foolish Heart, Johnny Burke’s What’s New and Richard Rodgers’ My Funny Valentine. Mellow Dream was a mixture of the new music and much-loved classics and just like Scenery, was recorded at Yamaha Hall, in Sapporo.
This time, Masataka Ito took charge of production when Mellow Dream was recorded on August the ’17th’ and ’18th’ 1977. Joining pianist Ryo Fukui was drummer Yoshinori Fukui and bassist Satoshi Denpo, which was the same lineup of the trio that featured on Scenery. They took just two days to record Mellow Dream, which was mixed during two days in September 1977 and was ready for release.
Mellow Dream was released in late 1977, to plaudits and praise, with critics calling the album a fitting followup to Scenery. By then, Ryo Fukui had a matured not just as a pianist and bandleader, but as a composer.
The twenty-seven year old’s pianist sophomore album Mellow Dream, found Ryo Fukui continuing to combine and explore bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, post bop and even a hint of blues on what was a much mellower, soulful and ruminative album that allowed time to reflect, especially on Mellow Dream and the reinvention of My Foolish Heart. Other times, the music on Mellow Dream packs a punch and swings as Ryo Fukui grabs Baron Potato Blues and Horizon by the scruff of the neck. His fingers fly across the piano keyboard as he plays with speed and fluidity as the rest of the trio match him every step of the way. Meanwhile, the music on Mellow Dream is an emotional roller coaster as it veers between vibrant to joyous and melancholy and rueful. Ryo Fukui it seems is a man for all seasons on his sophomore album Mellow Dream.
Following the success of his sophomore album Mellow Dream, Ryo Fukui continued to hone his skills and mature and improve as a musician, but made the decision to concentrate playing live. This included in the Slowboat jazz club in Sapporo, which Ryo Fukui owned and ran with his wife Yasuko. With Ryo Fukui concentrating on playing live, it was eighteen years before he returned with a new album.
Ryo Fukui returned with My Favorite Tune in 1995, and followed this up with Ryo Fukui In New York in 1999. It was another sixteen years before Ryo Fukui released A Letter From Slowboat in 2015, which proved to be his swan-song.
Sadly, Ryo Fukui passed away on March the ‘15th’ 2016, aged just sixty-seven. That day Japanese jazz was in mourning at the loss of one of its great pianists, who although self-taught was a masterful performer who played with grace, fluidity and invention during a career that spanned five decades.
Although Ryo Fukui enjoyed a long career, he only released five albums, including his cult classic Mellow Dream which like his debut album Scenery are a reminder of bandleader, composer and pianist Ryo Fukui who sadly, was and still is one of jazz’s best kept secrets outside of his native Japan. Hopefully, that will change and Ryo Fukui’s music will be discovered by the new and wider audience it deserves.
Cult Classic: Ryo Fukui- Mellow Dream.