CULT CLASSIC: MASAO NAKAJIMA QUARTET-KEMO SABE.
Cult Classic: Masao Nakajima Quartet-Kemo Sabe.
Masao Nakajima was born in Senzoku, Ohta ward, Tokyo in 1950. His father was a councilman and his mother worked in music and also sang classical music. It was no surprise that her son started playing piano aged seven.
In 1959, aged nine, Masao Nakajima discovered jazz and began listening to Dave Brubeck, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing. This was to be the start of a lifelong love-affair with jazz which would eventually, become his career.
Four years later, aged thirteen, Masao Nakajima saw Oscar Peterson in concert. Seeing the great American pianist play would influence him because at the time, he didn’t know much about the Japanese jazz scene. That would soon change.
By the time he was sixteen, Masao Nakajima was the pianist for the house band at a club owned by Teruo Isono. The house band accompanied everyone from Isao Sukuki and Charlie Haden to Eki Kitamura, Hideo Shiraki and Takeru Muroka. It was good practise for the young pianist.
When he was eighteen he moved to the Hilton Hotel in Tokyo. That was where be met and befriended a number of jazz musicians including Hampton Hawkes. By then great things were being forecasted for Masao Nakajima.
Not long after this he started to tour Japan and play at festivals with the George Kawaghuci Big Four, Hideyuki Matsumoto Quartet, Shoji Suzuki Band and Shungo Sawada Band. This was good experience for Masao Nakajima.
In 1969 composer Keitaro Miho recommended that he formed a band with the flautist in his band, Yasuo Kitamura. The resultant studio orchestra was named Flying Dr Merry Freud. Their eponymous debut album was a mixture of fusion and free jazz and featured a mixture of classical and popular songs. This new project opened doors for the bandleader.
Japanese music critic Teruo Isono invited Masao Nakajima to play a session with Art Blakey’s band. After this, the pianist played in the Glen Miller Orchestra’s concert in Japan. This was good experience.
At the time, he was the producer of pop singer Hideo Saijo and produced his Budokan concert. Masao Nakajima played at the inaugural TBS International Music Festival and helped to arrange visiting orchestras.
Meanwhile, he was playing at various clubs in Tokyo including Body and Soul, Shinuki Pit Inn and Shinuki Taro. Masao Nakajima also played at Max Hall in Roppongi and Yuzuru Sara’s live house.
Then in 1971 Masao Nakajima was a gust performer for Shoji Suzuki’s All Night Jazz Festival. When he played live the tapes were running and an album entitled Shoji Suzuki Rhythm Ace No Subete was later released.
Two years later in 1973, Masao Nakajima journeyed to America for the first time. That was where he met composer Mike Nock in San Francisco. The second meeting came when they were then introduced by a mutual friend.
The third time they met was at the Sweet Basil on 7th Avenue, in New York, when Mike Nock was playing alongside Michael Brecker and Peter Erskine. That night at the club, Masao Nakajim asked his new friend some questions. Having answered the questions he handed Masao Nakajima a copy of a piece that he had written entitled Kemo Sabe and told him to play it when he returned to Japan. This track would eventually be recorded in by the Masao Nakajima Quartet in 1979. That was still to come.
In 1978, Masao Nakajima decided to spread his wings and spent a year in America. During that time he lived in LA and New York which he preferred as a jazz musician.
Having decided to live in the Big Apple, he toured with local musicians and did some session work. This included an album of disco-tinged fusion that guitarist Cornell Dupree was recording. Masao Nakajima played keyboards and was the arranger which showcased his versatility.
Much of Masao Nakajima’s time was spent playing live. Especially in the jazz clubs of New York. He played at Sweet Basil on 7th Avenue and appeared at the Long Island Beach Jazz Festival. It was after this he was approached by Ron McClure to work with him. By then, Masao Nakajima had decided that he wanted to return home and decided to decline the offer.
Having returned to Japan, Masao Nakajima was approached to work on a session with Billy Hart. This came after someone at the label read an article in Swing Journal. By then, the twenty-eight year old pianist was regarded as a rising star in Japanese jazz.
In 1979, the Masao Nakajima Quartet had signed to Yupiteru Records and were about to enter the studio with producer Tadao Shimo. The group were about to record six tracks including Mike Nock’s Kemo Sabe which had been registered in 1977. It was joined by Masao Nakajima’s Beloved Diane, Herbie Hancock’s Tell Me A Bedtime Story, Ron Carter’s Third Plane, John Coltrane’s Moments Notice and Bob James’ My Love. These tracks were recorded by a group of top jazz musicians.
This included Philly-born drummer Donald Bailey, double bassist Osamu Kawakami and bandleader Masao Nakajima on piano. Meanwhile Toshiyuki Honda played flute as well as alto and soprano saxophone. At the session the Masao Nakajima Quartet recorded an album of modal jazz that would go on to become one of the hidden gems of J Jazz.
It opens with Kemo Sabe which Mike Nock told Masao Nakajim to play on his return to Japan. A year later, it opened the album which it also lent its name to. It’s a vibrant, joyous and uplifting opener that’s also compelling and captivating. Beloved Diane was named after Masao Nakajima beautiful girlfriend. It’s essentially a paean where he express his love for her. The beautiful ballad Tell Me A Bedtime Story closed side one of the album and the Quartet breath new life and meaning into Herbie Hancock’s composition.
Masao Nakajima Quartet open side two of Kemo Sabe with Ron Carter’s Third Plane. It’s a mid tempo piece that was recommended by Toshiyuki Honda and showcases his considerable skills. This includes his funky but accessible alto saxophone playing which takes centre-stage before the baton’s passed to the bandleader’s piano. He delivers a masterclass putting all his years of experience to good use on this peerless cover.
Then the band pays homage to John Coltrane by covering Moments Notice from his album Blue Train. This was the first time that Masao Nakajima had played the piece. It doesn’t show as they unleash an energetic and impassioned performance as they pay homage to the late, great giant of jazz.
Closing Kemo Sabe was My Love written by Bob James. It’s a gorgeous rendition full of warmth and emotion with the piano and double bass playing leading roles and closing the album on a high.
Sadly, when Kemo Sabe was released by Yupiteru Records in 1979 the Masao Nakajima Quartet wasn’t a commercial success. Despite a star studded and incredibly talented lineup the album failed to make any impression on the lucrative Japanese jazz market. It was hugely disappointing for the twenty-nine year old bandleader and the Quartet never released a followup album.
Since then, copies of Kemo Sabe have become much-prized amongst collectors of J Jazz. Copies are extremely difficult to find and sadly, it’s now beyond the budget of most collectors. However, it was recently reissued by BBE Music as part of their J Jazz Masterclass Series.
Kemo Sabe is a cult classic that features original tracks and cover versions. It’s a captivating album of top quality modal jazz that’s a mixture of beauty, emotion, energy and warmth that’s also joyous, uplifting. The playing is tight, almost flawless and impassioned as the members of the Masao Nakajima Quartet feed off each other and drive each other to new heights on this oft-overlooked J Jazz hidden gem which lasts just under thirty-six majestic minutes but oozes quality.
Cult Classic: Masao Nakajima Quartet-Kemo Sabe.