Photo: the Tohru Aizawa Quartet
When most Westerners think about Japan and jazz, they think of it in terms of a vast audience. Japanese people still buy records and CDs; they listen reverently in tiny almost-private clubs; Western artists tour Japan to rapturous receptions. But Japanese jazz musicians are rarely recognized outside their homeland. Keyboardist Hiromi Uehara and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi have sizable mainstream audiences, while pianist Satoko Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, are supported by a devoted cult. (Fujii turns 60 this year, and is celebrating by releasing a CD a month.) Trumpeter Toshinori Kondo travels back and forth between the avant-garde and more listener-friendly zones; he’s a member of saxophonist Peter Brötzmann‘s Die Like A Dog quartet, but has also collaborated with DJ Krush. The same is true of saxophonist Akira Sakata, who’s worked with Krush and with Bill Laswell, but also with Jim O’Rourke. Violinist Meg Okura, subject of a recent Burning Ambulance podcast episode, has established herself on the New York scene. And two of the farthest-out players in free jazz history, saxophonist Kaoru Abe and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, were Japanese; their duo albums, Mass Projection and Gradually Projection, are landmarks of the “how much of this can you stand?” school.
Two new compilations are admirable attempts to educate Western ears about Japanese jazz history. J-Jazz – Deep Modern Jazz from Japan 1969-1984, which is available now, and the two-volume Spiritual Jazz Vol. 8: Japan, the latest in a long-running and much-admired series, which is due out in June, offer a combined 26 tracks over more than four hours, by 21 different artists or bands. A few pieces feature traditional Japanese instruments in a jazz context, like Mitsuaki Kanno‘s “Kumo no Ito,” but others are decidedly Western in approach and, indeed, are virtually indistinguishable from mainstream 1970s acoustic jazz played anywhere in the world. John Coltrane—who toured Japan in 1966, only a few months before his death—seems to be a particular touchstone. Spiritual Jazz Vol. 8: Japan includes a version of “Scarborough Fair,” which recalls Coltrane’s recording of “Greensleeves” from 1962’s Africa/Brass, and “My Favorite Things,” but the latter is performed by Tadao Hayashi on harp (backed by booming upright bass and frantically brushed drums), bringing it closer to the territory of his widow Alice. J-Jazz, meanwhile, features trumpeter Terumasa Hino‘s 15-minute “Ode to Workman,” on which bassist Reggie Workman, formerly of Coltrane’s quartet, joins the ensemble for an epic, mantra-like blowout featuring some truly fierce guitar work from Kiyoshi Sugimoto (who has one track under his own name on each compilation).
Drummer Takeo Moriyama is the MVP of these sets, as he has one track on each volume of Spiritual Jazz 8 and one on J-Jazz. There are some real surprises to be heard, too; “Spanish Flower” by Tee & Company , an all-star band assembled by producer Takeshi “Tee” Fujii, is an extended (nearly 19 minutes) modal workout very much in the mode of Coltrane or McCoy Tyner‘s 1970s solo work, but the tasteful guitar solo that appears at the 11:30 mark, right after the flute fanfare, is by none other than the aforementioned noise terrorist, Masayuki Takayanagi!
The music on both these compilations is played at the highest level, with real love, and the recording quality is impeccable throughout. (Some of it seems to be sourced from vinyl, as the original albums are almost all extremely rare and only a few have ever been reissued on CD, but it’s been beautifully cleaned up with an absolute minimum of noise.) This is beautiful, inspired, creative music worthy of space in any jazz fan’s collection.