Various ‘J Jazz – Deep Modern Jazz from Japan 1969-1984’ 3LP/CD (BBE Music) 5/5

In the aftermath of WWII, Japan began the process of reconstruction under the jurisdiction until 19512 of the American military authorities who enacted widespread economic and social reforms as well as those in the military and political domains. One by-product of this situation was that a younger generation of Japanese came face to face with US, and by extension western culture, after the policy of isolationism imposed by the former Japanese military authorities and which brainwashed the average Japanese citizen into thinking that westerners were savages hell-bent on the destruction of Japan. After the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was with much trepidation that the ordinary Japanese person envisioned the US occupation of their nation and the imposition and potentially alien cultural norms and values. To begin with at micro level, this meant large-scale dance halls where big band swing jazz was being reproduced by local orchestras. However, as Japan rapidly rebuilt the country under a capitalist consumer society, modern American jazz artists started to tour and influence a subsequent generation of Japanese youths who had become used to being exposed to western music, and as Japanese economic growth was sustained and technology improved, were thereafter able to listen to the jazz greats on record as well as in the flesh at regular concert venues, large and small, that grew in number during the 1960s. This compilation is a reflection of that younger generation who, as amateur enthusiasts, wanted to reproduce those sounds in their own way.

The title is slightly misleading in that the earliest music dates in fact from 1973 and the music in general focuses mainly upon the mid-to-late 1970s period, but it is nonetheless true to say that stylistically much of the music heard here could typically, from an American perspective, come from the mid-late 1960s era. While it is far from a definitive compilation of Japanese jazz as a whole (that would require a several series volume similar to that attempted by the Swedish cultural institute with the considerable organisational and financial support of the Swedish jazz label, Caprice records, and which has mushroomed into a multi-volume exploration of jazz in that country), it does shed light on how US jazz in the post-‘Kind of Blue’ era impacted upon jazz enthusiasts in Japan, with highly informative notes that open up new perspectives to western jazz devotees on how jazz in Japan is appreciated and for that alone, the compilation is an extremely worthy eye opener, and indeed a fine companion to the previous one offered by Jazzman records earlier in the year. It advisedly avoids much of the slick jazz-fusion material that surfaced during the late 1970s and 1980s, but the one thing we do not hear are jazz vocals (or for that matter Japanese women instrumentalists such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, or, more recently, Hiromi who, externally, have come in the course of time to dominate the perception of Japanese jazz externally) and that is one aspect that does need to be covered at some point. Of course, linguistic factors come into play here and that is one major reason why no Japanese vocalist(s) has/have yet to make any real international impact whereas instrumentalists do not face such obstacles. Secondly, some of the other finest pianists such as Masabumi Kikuchi do not feature and some of their earlier work was released only in Japan. In the case of Kikuchi, his later work has been recorded sporadically on ECM and is well worth investigating. Thirdly, some of the other major brass instrument and percussion figures from the 1970s are missing and these include trumpeter Terumasa Hino and drummer Masahiko Togashi, although to be fair the sleeve notes clearly make reference to their contribution and some selection of whom to include and exclude is part and parcel of any such compilation. Finally, the numerous recordings of US musicians in Japan are noteworthy and, perhaps, an entirely separate anthology of their work is required also and this includes major names that range from Art Blakey to Herbie Hancock and Elvin Jones, to Oliver Nelson and Mal Waldron.

The question of authenticity needs to be posed at an early juncture because jazz at its very essence is about individual expression and one legitimate criticism that has been voiced about jazz in general that emanates from outside the United States is whether it is merely derivative of the original source, or has managed to evolve into something more localised and personal. Outside of jazz, one can cite the example of the Finnish tango, which although it clearly has its roots in Argentine tango, has developed its own roots and adapted to an entirely separate culture and climate. In the case of jazz, the fusion of local folk music with jazz has produced some noteworthy new hybrid styles from Afro-Cuban jazz to Indo-Jazz fusion. With very few exceptions, jazz in Japan has tended to follow a more conservative route, and thus reproduce similar styles to those in the evolution of modern jazz in the United States. This may explain in part, at least, why some Japanese musicians have made the United States their part or permanent home in order to gain their own voice.

As to the music within, an immediate favourite of this writer is actually from 1984, although, in style alone, it sounds more akin to 1964. This is the refined modal piece, ‘A Blind Man’, by the Shintaro quintet, composed by leader and bassist, Shintaro Nakamura, but interestingly and significantly, featuring US pianist Jeff Jenkins who has worked under Kenny Barron. What makes this number work is equally the graceful trumpet solo of Shunzo Ohno, and it is no accident that the leader has worked with other American jazz musicians, notably Woody Shaw. Another combination of Japanese and US jazz musicians in tandem operates on the impressionistic sounding ‘Little Island’, and it is important to note that like jazz musicians everywhere else, Japanese keyboardists have come under the influence of French composers such as Debussy and Ravel. On this 1976 offering on the Why Not label, leader and pianist Fumio Karashima, has an individual piano voice and this trio includes drummer Jimmy Hopps, who performed on several albums of Roland Kirk and on the Strata East label. Karashima is a musician of whom much more needs to be heard and it is sad to learn that, just as a wider international audience finally has the opportunity to hear his music and find out a little more about him, he should then pass away in early 2017. Brazilian music seems to be extremely popular in Japan and this is illustrated by the understated electric piano bossa trio + 1 piece from 1978, ‘Aya’s Samba’, composed by leader and bassist, Eiji Nakayama. The subtle melody is stated on Fender Rhodes by Atsushi Sakuraba before the tenor saxophone of Kenji Takahashi enters late in proceedings. This was recorded on the legendary Johnny’s Disk label and the label owner ran a Jazz Kissa or café in the town of Rikuzentakata, which in 2011 became famous for being one of the places worst affected by the terrible tsunami. This entirely washed away the building where the Jazz Kissa was situated and with it a 10,000 LP collection. One instrument that is barely heard on this compilation is the sound of the guitar, but that is rectified to some extent by the inclusion of ‘Long Neal’ by leader and guitarist, Kiyoshi Sugimoto from 1973. The piece grows in intensity and the electric piano licks from Masayoshi Yoneda are especially pleasing on the ear. There is great empathy between the leader and tenor saxophonist Takao Uematsu.

Last, but by no means least, the exemplary and stylishly adorned sleeve notes by Tony Higgins and Mike Peden are worthy of a separate award in that translating from original Japanese into English is necessarily a lengthy and potentially hazardous task, but every individual track nonetheless receives full line-up details along with biographical information on how the recordings came about and the musicians concerned, historical notes on the independent labels, and wherever possible by graphical illustrations of the front cover. Given the lack of attention devoted to all but the most obvious of Japanese jazz musicians in English language publications, the pioneering work of Tony Higgins and Mike Peden deserves a great deal of credit for taking the modern history of jazz in Japan that little bit further than previously and we should all be grateful for that.

Tim Stenhouse