Cult Classic: Noriko Miyamoto With Isao Suzuki-Push.

During a long and illustrious career, double bassist Isao Suzuki was one of the most important and influential Japanese jazz artists of his generation. His career began in 1956, and over a career that spanned seven decades he released over fifty solo albums. That’s not all. He also helped to develop many young, up-and-coming artists. Many of these artists joined his band Soul Family. 

Its line-up was constantly changing, and by 1978 many top Japanese jazz musicians had been a member of Soul Family. The group also featured on Push the debut album by Noriko Miyamoto With Isao Suzuki which nowadays, is regarded as a J-Jazz cult classic.

It’s also an album that launched the career of a truly talented vocalist Noriko Miyamoto. However, just a few years earlier she was a dancer at the Mugden disco in Akasaka.

The Mugden disco opened its doors in 1968, and nowadays, is remembered by former patrons for its psychedelic interior. It was very different to other clubs and jazz kissas in postwar Japan and soon, became the most fashionable place in Akasaka. Everyone from  creatives to cultural and literary giants made their way to the new club. Before long, so did Noriko Miyamoto.

She was born in Ginza, Tokyo, in 1951, and like many Japanese teenagers discovered Western music in the sixties. Initially, it was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. This was just the start of her love affair with music.

Noriko Miyamoto’s other passion was dancing. Despite only being in junior high school, she used to go to Tokyo’s trendy go-go clubs. That was where she first heard soul and funk music including Otis Redding and James Brown. Soon, the music became part of the soundtrack to her life as she became a regular at the clubs.

Having graduated from high school, Noriko Miyamoto decided not to enrol at university. Instead, she continued to dance at various go-go clubs. Then once she was eighteen, she made her way to the legendary Mugden disco.

By then, she was living in Yohohama, some distance from Tokyo’s clubs. However, Noriko Miyamoto still made the journey to Mugden where she danced a couple of times. Then she was hired as a dancer at the club. Little did she know this would be the start of a musical career. That was still to come. 

Mugden was a popular club, and was popular with soldiers from US air bases. They knew the latest dances which were popular back home. Noriko Miyamoto was able to learn the new dances, which soon, were popular in Tokyo’s clubs. However, it was in Mugden that the new dances emerged in Japan.

One night in Mugden, Ike and Tina Turner were booked to perform at the club. It turned out to be a life-changing moment for Noriko Miyamoto. That night, she realised that she was at the peak of her powers as a dancer. It was time to pursue a new career.

Seeing Tina Turner play live inspired Noriko Miyamoto to follow in her footsteps. She too, wanted to be a singer and entertainer. Not long after this, fate intervened.

Noriko Miyamoto was approached by a local rock band who were looking for a new lead singer. As a top dancer, her boss at Mugden didn’t want to leave. However, she had made her mind up to become a singer. It also meant that when she took to the stage she could sing Tina Turner’s songs.

Having joined the group, Noriko Miyamoto discovered that the covers they played were mostly rock songs. This included groups like Mountain who were popular at the time. She wasn’t going to get the chance to sing Tina Turner songs. Eventually, she left the group and joined the funk septet, The Three Cheers.

The group were popular in clubs and military bases around Tokyo. However,  The Three Cheers were different from other groups as they had a triumvirate of vocalists. This meant that Noriko Miyamoto had to shine. Each night she took to the stage, she was determined to be noticed. Sadly, this took its toll on her voice.

This resulted in Noriko Miyamoto needing throat surgery. Following the surgery, she was advised to rest for a month. During this period, she became even more determined to make a career as a singer.

By then, The Three Cheers’ popularity was growing. So much so, that a record label expressed an interest in signing the group. The only problem was that the label didn’t want an album of Western R&B. Instead, they wanted the group to become a Japanese pop group.

So the band began writing an album of original Japanese pop song. These The Three Cheers tried to record in LA. However, the sessions were unsuccessful and the band broke up.

By then, The Three Cheers had been together for between two to three years. They decided to have a farewell party in Tokyo. Ironically, the venue was the Mugden disco.

Not long after the farewell party, Noriko Miyamoto met Isao Suzuki who would later produce Push. The meeting took place after the singer decided to continue her musical education.

Wanting to continue her career as a singer, Noriko Miyamoto decided that it would help if she could sing jazz. She started singing few jazz standards. They were on a demo tape that she made and found its way in the hands of Isao Suzuki. When he listened to the demo he wanted to meet Noriko Miyamoto.

When she went to meet Isao Suzuki in 1977, she realised that it was like an audition. She was asked to sing with his band Soul Family. This resulted in Noriko Miyamoto being hired to sing with the band. She was the latest up-and-coming singer to join the band.

At the time, she was told that Soul Family had a gig booked. Her debut was at Select: Live Under The Sky ’77 Jazz Festival. That day, she took to the stage with a group that By then, then they were known as a group that featured some of the top young Japanese musicians.

Later in 1977, Noriko Miyamoto made her recording with Soul Family on a live album. This was Jazz of Japan: Live Under The Sky ’77 which was released by the Flying Disk label. However, a year later, in 1978, the twenty-seven year old singer would release her debut album Push.

Members of Soul Family featured on Push. The musicians had been experimenting by combining a mixture of orthodox jazz with crossover and fusion. This sound was popular at the time and featured on Push.  

Not long after this, Isao Suzuki received the offer of a  recording contract from Yupiteru Recods for Push. The only problem was that, at the time, he was signed to JVC Victor. However, he worked out a way to get around this problem.

When Push which was released in 1978  it was credited to Noriko Miyamoto With Isao Suzuki. This suited everyone, including Noriko Miyamoto. She was  keen to continue to singing and embark upon a solo career. This began with Push. 

The album opened with Monologue which was penned by Isao and Shihoko Suzuki. It’s the only track on the album which is sung by Noriko Miyamoto in Japanese. She sings four songs in English. At the time, this was unusual. Despite that, it was something that she continued to do throughout her career.

Victor Young’s Stella By Starlight is an instrumental that’s been covered by everyone from Charlie Parker and Chet Baker to Miles Davis and Stan Getz. The track allows Soul Family to showcase their considerable talents. The band features a mixture of Japanese musicians who are augmented by some of the country’s musical rising stars. They reinvent this oft-covered track and take it in a new direction. Closing the first side is the jazz standard Everything I Have Is Yours. It features an impassioned vocal by Noriko Miyamoto that’s one of her finest moments on the album.

Originally, the title-track Push was an instrumental. However, Noriko Miyamoto wrote English lyrics. She delivers a breathy, tender and heartfelt vocal tour de force against an understated jazzy arrangement. This allows the vocal to take centrestage and play a starring role on what’s one of the highlights of the album.

Cadillac Woman was originally an instrumental that featured on Isao Suzuki’s debut album. Later, it became a feature of Soul Family’s sets when they played live. They combine elements of funk and fusion with jazz and jazz-funk. Adding the finishing touch is Noriko Miyamoto’s vocal. She’s a truly talented vocalist who can breath meaning an emotion into lyrics. So much so, that it’s hard to believe that this was her debut solo album.

Closing Push is My Life. It’s a song that Isao Suzuki wrote for jazz singer Kimiko Kasai. However, Noriko Miyamoto’s version features a breathy, coquettish vocal against Soul Family’s genre-melting arrangement. This six minute opus is the perfect way to close the album. It showcases the versatility and talent of Soul Family and launched the career of Noriko Miyamoto.

Sadly, when Push was released in 1978 sales were disappointing. That’s despite Isao Suzuki’s involvement and Soul Family backing Noriko Miyamoto on what was a near flawless genre-melting album.

Push featured elements of contemporary jazz, funk, fusion, jazz, soul and soul jazz on an album that introduced the world to vocalist Noriko Miyamoto. She was destined for greatness.

After the release of Push, Noriko Miyamoto received an offer to sing on a commercial for the cosmetics brand Kenebo. She accepted and said goodbye to Isao Suzuki and his band Soul Family as the entertainment industry beckoned. 

The advert was huge all over Japan and Noriko Miyamoto was approached by a talent agency. Not long after this, she signed to Trio Records who released her sophomore album Vivid. 

Noriko Miyamoto sang just two of the songs on Vivid in English. When it was released in 1979, the result was a hugely successful album that featured soul and city pop. This was very different from Push.

However, Noriko Miyamoto was nominated for the Best New Artist at the annual Japan Record Awards. Although she failed to win the award she won the Foreign Judges Award at the Tokyo International Music Festival. This was a prestigious award and showed just how far Noriko Miyamoto in a short space of time.

Noriko Miyamoto’s third album Rush was released in 1980 and was an album of Japanese pop. It built on the success of Rush and showcased a versatile and talented singer who continued to reinvent herself on the seven solo albums she released.  

However, her debut album was Push, a glorious and almost flawless opus. Sadly, this hidden gem of an album failed to find the audience it so richly deserved. For many years, Push was a hidden gem in Noriko Miyamoto’s discography that was often overlooked in favour of her more commercial and successful albums. However, now and somewhat belatedly, connoisseurs and collectors of J-Jazz have discovered the delights of the cult classic Push which launched the career of the truly talented and versatile vocalist Noriko Miyamoto.

Cult Classic: Noriko Miyamoto With Isao Suzuki-Push.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: