Let us rewind briefly to the end of World War Two. United States forces under the leadership of Edwin Reischauer occupied mainland Japan and the surrounding islands. The reconstruction of Japan was slowly underway, but it was not only material, devastating though the Allied bombing of Tokyo was and never ever forgetting the utter devastation exacted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With respect to the Japanese people, however, there was a psychological reality of an occupied force that they had been taught to hate and a policy of isolationism, and consequently a great cultural re-awakening. Reischauer, later to become a professor of Political Science, and an expert on matters Japanese (born in Japan originally), had the perceptiveness to handle the occupation with great sensitivity, and avoid alienating the local population. It is into this complex socio-political context that Western music and jazz more specifically soon entered the equation. Renewed interest in the arts resulted in thousands of books pouring off the Japanese press in cheap translated editions and thus the Japanese people slowly began to embrace social concepts of the West, including mass culture.
Jazz had in fact first emerged in Japan as early as in the 1920’s when the import of records and the music was regarded as a romantic pass time and difficult for a Japanese taught tongue to pronounce ‘Chjazz’. During war itself, by 1944 young Japanese (the same applied to German soldiers in the Wehrmacht) flouted the rules and were playing jazz records. The transgressive quality of jazz and its questioning of orthodoxy was to the fore here. A first example of how swing jazz was influencing the young Japanese population in the emerging dancehalls of the immediate post-war reconstructed Tokyo can be found in an insightful film by Kurosawa Akira, ‘Drunken Angel’ (1947) and numbers as immortal as ‘Tokyo boogie woogie’, but fast forward another thirteen years to 1960, and another masterly film by Naruse Mikio, ‘When a woman ascends the stairs’, now depicted a totally transformed Tokyo night scene in the satellite village topography where jazz regularly played a pivotal role via gramophones and the first beginnings of what would be the jazz café culture begun in the 1950s (often in response to the touring U.S. musicians under the tutelage of Norman Granz) that mushroomed throughout the city and to other parts of Japan. American jazz musicians were among the vanguard of cultural representatives, and these included Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers who remain a much-loved band, pianist Horace Silver who took his group over to tour, and at a later stage, Miles Davis who reveled in the adulation he and his wife received, and the spiritual awakening of John Coltrane. Novelist and jazz musician Hiroshi Murakami would regularly feature scenes from and references to that same café culture.
Horace Silver enjoyed as close a relationship as virtually anyone (Elvin Jones and Wayne Shorter would go further still and marry Japanese nationals and were not the only ones. Charlie Mariano and Lou Tabackin at different periods married the same Japanese woman, virtuoso Japanese pianist, Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose music is showcased here). In Silver’s autobiography, ‘Let’s get to the Nitty Gritty’, explains matters thus in reference to a 1962 tour by the Horace Silver quintet: (…) We were treated like royalty Western musicians, or superstars(…) The red carpet was extended to us in those days’. In his autobiography, Reischauer alludes not only to the intermingling of Japanese natives and jazz musicians, but to a relaxing of established codes of behaviour'(…) And there was ground out American jazz and emancipated young men (who) enjoyed the company of pretty young waitresses of doubtful morals’. French director Alain Resnais would make his own masterpiece, ‘Hiroshima mon amour'(1959), on the relationship between a Japanese man and French woman.
Chronologically, the music within this panoramic view of modern Japanese jazz dates from the early decade of the 1960’s with Toshiko Akiyoshi through to the early 1970’s. Stylistically, it embraces, bop, free, modal, fusion, including elements of Japanese folk, and funk. While it will require several listens over a longer period to fully take in all the musical treasures on offer, and in the case of some pieces, they do develop into quite different beasts over one of more movements, some key pointers can nonetheless be made at this early juncture. A love of delicate sounding instruments seems to be a hallmark of the music here and an indication, perhaps, of a great sensitivity towards this reflective of the Japanese folk tradition. This, a lilting harp-led trio interpretation of, ‘My favourite things’, opens up proceedings with leader Tadao Hayasaki operating on the harp, as Alice Coltrane would do also. A Japanese flute, the shakuhachi, is heard in all it’s glory alongside the graceful sounding koto on. ‘The positive and negative’ by Minoru Muraoka which is taken from a highly sought after album, ‘Soul bamboo’, from 1970, that has a drum solo hip-hop samplers would identify with. East and West combine, with a strong Indian flavour on Ragan Sinthubairavi’, where reedists Sadao Watanabe (arguably the best known Japanese horn player on an international stage and capable of performing in a variety of styles from a disciple of Parker-esque bop to fusion) and Charlie Mariano join forces, the latter on the high-pitched Indian reed instrument, the nadaswaram. Further highlights on the first CD include a lovely modal reading of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprint(s)’ by guitarist Shungo Sawada, and a fusion piece that build into a cacophony of sound from the ‘Godfather of the Japanese avant-garde’, guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, as part of a larger collective known as New Direction for the Arts and a 1972 offering entitled ‘Sun in the East’.
The second CD is notable for the inclusion of pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and a trio version of a Japanese traditional classic that the pianist has subsequently revisited in different formats, but here offers a gentle 1961 reading, ‘Kisarazu jinku’. She remains by far the best known of all Japanese jazz musicians abroad and a major inspiration for younger generations of women pianists, in both jazz and classical idioms. Psychedelic jazz-fusion with gospel voicings surface on a 1971 number with psychedelic guitar that come straight off a Serge Gainsbourg film soundtrack, ‘Kikazaru’, by pianist and composer Keitaro Miho. A keen appreciation of other folk culture and adaptation to a jazz context results in one of the most enjoyable tracks on the whole compilation, a gorgeous, multi-faceted interpretation of ‘Scarborough fair’, an English folk tune that Martin Carthy taught Paul Simon who sold it to the masses and probably served as the inspiration for this version, one that commences in gentle mode before picking up a head of steam with an increasingly energetic tenor saxophone solo from Miyazawa Akira as part of the Four Units group.
It is important to stress that the 2 CD set comprises the totality of the tracks while the vinyl editions are divided up into two separate parts. A lavish bi-lingual thirty-two page booklet in English and Japanese leaves no stone unturned and comprehensively covers the individual pieces. While not the first jazz compilation of Japanese jazz, in Japan at least and there have been praiseworthy efforts on individual labels (if you can find a copy, try the ‘Shibuya jazz Classics Sleep Walker’ collection of Columbia Japan that includes another Sadao Watanabe and Charlie Mariano collaboration, ‘Iberian waltz’), this cuts across far more territory and eras within the parameters of modern jazz at least. This is likely to become a groundbreaking compilation of Japanese jazz that will appeal to those who have long searched for something to quench their appetite for jazz as envisioned by its practitioners in the Far East, and especially the undoubted love in which the music is held and the exquisite attention to detail paid to the (re)issuing of jazz products in Japan. A follow up might want to explore in greater depth the cross-fertilisation of visiting American and other Western jazz musicians with the cream of Japanese musicians, and/or further delve into those Japanese only releases that have rarely if ever been heard outside the land of the rising sun.