L-R: Akira Sakata, Masahiko Satoh, Masahiko Togashi

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The best books about jazz are as much autobiography as chronicle. Valerie Wilmer‘s As Serious As Your Life offers deep insights into the lives and philosophies of the musicians she talks to (and photographs), but it’s only because she’s so involved in the scene herself, as a devoted fan and deep listener, that they’re willing to talk to her in a way that they would not with a mere journalist who came sniffing around for an hour. Graham Lock‘s Forces In Motion cracks open Anthony Braxton‘s seemingly impenetrable world of sound by documenting the author’s own immersion into it — he spends an extended period of time on the road with the band, living their life alongside them, talking to all four members of the quartet not just as interviewer and interviewee but as friend and peer, and as he grows to understand the music through experiencing it, the reader comes to understand it better, too.

Teruto Soejima‘s Free Jazz In Japan: A Personal History is a book of this type. Originally published in 2002, it has finally been translated into English via Public Bath Press. Soejima, who died in 2014, was a critic who was also one of the earliest and strongest boosters of free jazz and avant-garde music in Japan. In 1969, he joined forces with guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, drummer Masahiko Togashi and pianist Masahiko Satoh to found the New Jazz Hall, Tokyo’s first venue dedicated to free jazz. Throughout his life, he viewed himself as an advocate as well as a critic. In addition to his writing, he booked tours, produced albums, and worked to present Japanese artists abroad (particularly at European festivals) and bring like-minded American artists to Japan. He was there from the beginning, and this book describes the struggle to find performance spaces and to build an audience — in one hilarious incident, a particularly loud Takayanagi performance is interrupted by an enraged chef from a nearby restaurant, who bursts in, knife in hand, to complain about the noise — but ultimately becomes a tale of triumph, as Japanese free jazz musicians develop international reputations and the music grows and blossoms. 

The most interesting parts of the story are the earliest chapters, in which Teruto talks about shows at which there might be as few as three audience members present or as many as 35. He describes how various like-minded musicians, working in isolation and sometimes thinking they were the only ones who heard and played what they did, gradually came together and made a scene effectively by force of will. Some of the first musicians from this scene to record were Satoh, Togashi, and pianist Yosuke Yamashita, all of whom released albums in the summer and fall of 1969. (Another session, a duo between Togashi and saxophonist Mototeru Takagi, was recorded but went unreleased until 1971.)

Satoh’s trio, with Yasuo Arakawa on bass and Togashi on drums, recorded two albums in 1969, Palladium and Deformation. The former was actually a relatively straightforward, swinging date by 1969 standards. If you come in expecting a Cecil Taylor or Bobby Few-style assault, you’ll be disappointed — there’s even a version of the Beatles‘ “Michelle” on it. It’s 15 minutes long, though, and gets pretty far out in the middle. Satoh’s style at this time was percussive, but melodic, as though he was attempting to imitate McCoy Tyner on a typewriter. What makes the music especially interesting is the challenges posed by Togashi’s drumming, which is both aggressive and sneaky — he tosses sharp rolls and sudden gunshot snare hits at the pianist from the far corner of the sonic field, always seeming intent on pushing the energy level just one notch higher than it “should” go.

Deformation is an album-length piece, recorded live on July 4, 1969. It’s divided into seven tracks: a short intro, four movements, an intermission, and a conclusion. The music is more intense and much freer than that heard on Palladium, even though the sessions are separated by only a few months. Togashi’s drumming is fierce and almost hostile at times, and Satoh’s playing charges along, mixing heavy chords with fast, rippling extrapolations not unlike what Matthew Shipp was doing on albums like Prism and Circular Temple. He also reaches into the piano at times, strumming the strings. But as Soejima describes, “As a background to the trio’s sound, for the first half, tapes were played of sirens, metal being struck, frogs’ voices, and so on, in continuing loops…In the second half, tape fragments of classical and choral music were used. The players were collaborating not only with the other two members on stage, but also with the sounds they were hearing from the tapes.” These other sounds aren’t constant; it’s not like an Einstürzende Neubauten concert or something. But when they appear, they are quite striking and add a lot to the music.

Drummer Masahiko Togashi‘s Speed and Space, recorded with the quartet of Mototeru Takagi on saxophone, Satoh on piano, and Yoshio Ikeda on bass, is a ferocious assault. With his own group, Satoh’s playing had an intellectual quality, no matter how far out they got — you could hear him thinking as he played. Here, his fingers seem to be acting independently of his conscious mind. It’s a constant waterfall of notes. Togashi, too, is more unfettered as a leader; on the lengthy “Panorama,” he’s all over the kit in an almost Milford Graves-like manner, letting no drum or cymbal escape his attention. Ikeda’s bass is loud and prominent, with the big rubber-band sound that wouldn’t really take over in American jazz until the mid ’70s. And Takagi’s saxophone playing is as harsh and unrelenting as Pharoah Sanders or even later players like Charles Gayle. On “Speed and Space No. 1” (of two), he switches to bass clarinet, emitting low rumbles and hoarse cries, and even seems to be playing two instruments at once at certain points.

Pianist Yosuke Yamashita‘s trio with Seiichi Nakamura on saxophones and Takeo Moriyama on drums recorded their debut album, Dancing Kojiki, in the basement of a building at Tokyo’s Waseda University that had been taken over by students. The disc opens with a hoarse, declamatory speech/introduction by a student organizer, after which the music launches as a piano-drums duo with all the ferocity of Cecil Taylor and Sunny Murray at the Café Montmartre in 1962 (and a similar rough, clanging sound). Nakamura, too, plays a role similar to that of Jimmy Lyons in Taylor’s groups; his lines are often more melodic and traditional than what the other two are playing, and he seems at times to float atop the churning ocean of sound they’re creating, though eventually he rises to a level of intensity equal to theirs. The album contains just two long pieces, the 16-minute “Theme” and the 17-minute “Mokujiki,” and Soejima writes, “There is a story that Yamashita actually set fire to the piano as he was playing. A battle between a fiery sound and a burning piano!” Yamashita would soon form a different trio, with Akira Sakata on saxophones; this group would tour extensively in Europe and make several albums in the early to mid ’70s.

These albums can be tough to find; they’ve never been released at all on US labels, though they have been remastered and reissued on CD in Japan in the 21st century. Still, they’re well worth the search, and Soejima’s book is not only a perfect companion to the music, but provides highly entertaining and illuminating insights into the history of this scene, which was effectively a parallel universe, not just mirroring what was going on in the US (and to a lesser degree Europe — the Japanese were interested in jazz, not non-idiomatic free improvisation of the type practiced by, for example, UK musicians) but creating something in their own voices.

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One Comment on “Free Jazz In Japan

  1. Pingback: Book on Free Jazz In Japan Reviewed – Avant Music News

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