Koichi Matsukaze Trio + Toshiyuki Daitoku ‘Earth Mother’ 2LP/CD/DIG (BBE) 4/5

Forming part of a trio of Japanese jazz related re-issues by BBE (all reviewed in these columns) and one of their most intriguing and in-depth explorations by the label to date, this one focuses on a 1978 original release on the private ALM label that specialised in improvisational music and contemporary classical during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As such, the album showcases a very different side to Japanese jazz from the more mainstream jazz-fusion output that regularly featured in UK import record stores during the same period. It was in fact the second album for leader and multi-reedist Koichi Matsukaze (alto and tenor saxophone, plus flute), following on from the earlier live recording, ‘Live at the Room 427’ (1976), and is progressive jazz that oscillates between more straight acoustic and harder hitting fusion. The latter is emphasized on the opening piece, with a pretty melody, ‘Images in alone’, which features some fine interplay between Toshiyuki Daitoku on keyboards (here on Fender Rhodes and elsewhere on acoustic piano) and the leader on flute. The lengthy title track, which is featured also on the J-Jazz compilation album for BBE, is just over eleven minutes in length and the repetitive riff on bass leads on to an uptempo rhythm on drums with piano vamp and alto saxophone with just the faintest hint of Steps Ahead. It is important to stress that from the early 1960s onwards, American jazz groups would regularly perform in Japan and this, in turn, informed the local musicians of how the art form was evolving, and the Japanese, similar to the French, did consider jazz to be an art form that should be both respected and revered. That is very much reflected in the care taken with the re-issue of often hard to find jazz from the United States and elsewhere (including the UK. Check some of the vinyl re-issues of 1960s British jazz including Ronnie Ross).

While all but one of the five numbers are originals penned by the leader, it is the group’s take on Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, that was most anticipated by this writer in order to determine what new impetus they could bring. Interestingly, the group creates an intimate feel by leaving the piano out of proceedings, and in the intro there is deft brush work from Ryojiro Furusawa, creative basslines and the alto saxophone of the leader on display. A worthwhile re-issue, then, and one that provides a glimpse at least of what was happening below the surface of the Japanese jazz scene when jazz-fusion was dominating the external image of jazz in the land of the Rising Sun. Full marks for the extended notes translated from the original Japanese inner sleeve notes which provide much more detail on the band and were written by the leader and these are supplemented by excellent colour photos of the leader in action, presumably more recently. At some point, major labels such as Sony as well as others should seriously consider opening the vaults and issuing outside of Japan some of the jazz treasures they have in their back catalogue recorded there.

Tim Stenhouse