Nowadays, the most important period in the development of J-Jazz is between late-sixties through to the early eighties. That’s regarded as a crucial period in the development of modern jazz in Japan. During that period, many Japanese composers and musicians and bands released ambitious and innovative music that astounded those who heard it.
When critics, cultural commentators and record buyers heard the albums that were being released they were amazed just how far Japanese jazz had come in such a short space of time.
Just over twenty years earlier Japanese music fans were banned from listening to jazz during 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.
By the time the allied forces left Japan in 1952 and returned home, musicians like Frank Foster, Harold Lamb and Oliver Nelson had formed firm friendships with local jazzers. 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.
However, not all Japanese jazz musicians were inspired by their American counterparts by the mid-sixties as homegrown musicians were making their presence felt. This continued as the sixties gave way to the seventies.
In 1970, twenty-six year old saxophonist Kohsuke Mine released his sophomore album Mine on the Three Blind Mice label. By then, he was already an experienced musician.
Kenji Wakabayashi aka Kohsuke Mine was born in Yushimo, Ueno on February the ‘6th’ 1944. With the country at war, he was evacuated to Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture, which was home until his first year of elementary school. During that time, he didn’t hear much music.
This changed when Kohsuke Mine returned to Tokyo. By the time he was seven or eight he was given a radio. He also heard his father sing rokyoku which is a kind of Japanese narrative music. However, it wasn’t until he joined the school choir that the young Kohsuke Mine began to participate in music. This was just the start.
Soon, he decided that he wanted to learn to play an instrument. The chance came when started high school and joined a brass band. Not long after this, he decided to learn the clarinet which he studied during his second year of college. That was still to come.
One day at high school, Kohsuke Mine was playing his clarinet when he one of his friends heard him and invited him to a local jazz cafe. Soon, the two friends were heading to Mama, a jazz kissa in Yarakucho on a regular basis. This was where Kohsuke Mine discovered jazz and this was the start of a lifelong love affair.
By the time he was in the second year of college, Kohsuke Mine was studying clarinet. At the time, there was a big cabaret scene and he joined a dance band. It turned out that the bandleader also loved jazz music and would influence the new recruit who soon had switched to alto saxophone which he preferred the sound of.
The only problem was that Kohsuke Mine couldn’t read music. In a dance band there’s no room for improvisation and everyone has to stick to the “script.” Soon, he was able to read music and could seamlessly switch between different genres of music including Latin and swing which was music people could dance to.
Jazz was still the music that Kohsuke Mine loved and he remembers listening to Tory’s Jazz Game on the radio. The first record he bought was Paul Desmond’s With Strings. However, he also was listing to Art Blakey, Donald Byrd and Horace Silver. This was all part of Kohsuke Mine’s musical education.
Having switched to alto saxophone he decided not to take lessons and had to find a place to practice. He couldn’t practise at home and ended up sitting in the changing rooms of the clubs he was playing in practising. It wasn’t ideal but he soon improved and got his first job playing alto saxophone.
This was in Ashikaga and Gunma and only lasted a month. However, this was how he Kohsuke Minei met Kinoshita Circus and he played with them. After this, he was part of the band backing singer Akira Matsushima. All this was good experience for a young aspiring musician.
By the time Kohsuke Mine was eighteen he had joined Hisashi Kato’s band and played in a Club Milan, in Milanza in Shinjuku. It was around this time he became friendly with the leader Kato-san.
After a gig in a club in the Pony jazz cafe in Shinjuku Mr Kato arrived at the club and explained he was looking for an alto saxophonist. Kohsuke Mine played Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee at the audition and got the job in Kato-san’s band.
This was the start of a six year spell with the band where Kohsuke Mine matured and evolved into a versatile musician. He left the band around 1968.
It was around this time that Kohsuke Mine met Takehiro Honda who had a weekday residence at the Pitt Inn. The two men became friends and played three gigs including at the Pitt Inn, the US Air Base and the Nido nightclub in Niroo. Soon, it was time to move on and join a prestigious band.
After this, there was a spell with Kikuchi’s band. This coincided with a period when Japanese jazz was modernising between 1968 and 1969 with the arrival of fusion.
It was around this time that Kohsuke Mine made the move from sideman to bandleader. He made his debut on Live In Tokyo was recorded on the ‘30th’ of August 1969 and featured a variety of artists. It was released by Nippon Columbia. The following year he released his debut album on Phillips.
This was First which features six tracks. The only Kohsuke Mine composition is Morning Tide. Four tracks were written by band members. Keyboardist Masabumi Kikuchi wrote Love Talking and Little Abbi while drummer Lenny McBrowne contributed Bar’ L’ Len and bassist Larry Ridley penned McPhee. There was also a cover of Thelonious Monk’s Straight No Chaser.
First was recorded at Victor Studio on the ’17th’ and ‘18th’ June 1970. Bandleader and alto saxophonist Kohsuke Mine is joined by the American rhythm section of drummer Lenny McBrowne and bassist Larry Ridley who were joined by virtuoso keyboardist Masabumi Kikuchi on electric piano. Producing twenty-six year old Kohsuke Mine’s debut album was Masaharu Honjo.
When First was released by Phillips later in 1970 only a small amount of albums were pressed. The album was well received but they didn’t realise the importance of this groundbreaking release. It found Kohsuke Mine and his band combining contemporary jazz, fusion and modal over six tracks.
The album opener Morning Tide was written by bandleader Kohsuke Mine. He delivers a breathtaking performance on alto saxophone. His playing is emotive, imaginative and full of enthusiasm. Not to be outdone bassist Larry Ridley and Masabumi Kikuchi on electric piano unleash stunning solos on a track that sets the bar high.
Love Talking is a sprightly sounding track that swings. Masabumi Kikuchi who wrote the piece plays a starring role on electric piano.His playing his rhythmic and he uses pauses to a degree of drama. Stealing the show is Kohsuke Mine whose playing starts off smooth and becomes impassioned as he paints pictures with music on this modernist modal piece.
Straight No Chaser is a jazz classic and the band seem to raise their game as if paying homage to Monk. This time, Kohsuke Mine unleashes a blazing bluesy saxophone burns brightly while Masabumi Kikuchi’s adds some subtle modal movements on electric piano. Later, he gets the chance to stretch his legs and plays with an inventiveness before a bass solo takes centrestage. Then there’s a return to the main theme on this tribute to a jazz legend.
McPhee swings and grooves the rhythm section power the arrangement along. The playing is emotive and expressive and has made in America written all through it. That’s despite Kohsuke Mine and Masabumi Kikuchi both plays leading roles. So does bassist Larry Ridley during what’s a flawless piece from the quintet.
Masabumi Kikuchi wrote and named Little Abbi after his young daughter. His playing is at the heart of everything that’s good about the track. It’s poetic and expressive while beauty is everpresent during Masabumi Kikuchi’s solo during this J-Jazz ballad.
Closing First is one of the highlights of the album, Bar ‘L’ Len. Partly this is because of the interplay between the band. They’re playing is tight but still the arrangement swings and the album closes on a high.
While First wasn’t released to critical acclaim and wasn’t a commercial success it was later recognised as one of the most important albums of regional modern J-Jazz. Nowadays, the album is a cult classic and original copies of the album are much-prized rarities.
First is also the album that launched Kohsuke Mine’s long and illustrious career. He was one of the pioneers of fusion in Japan and released a string of critically acclaimed albums. However, First was the album that saw Kohsuke Mine step out of the shadows and into the spotlight as he made the move from sideman to bandleader a role that he was perfectly suited and handled with aplomb.