Japanese pianist Yosuke Yamashita’s first trio, with Seiichi Nakamura on saxophones and Takeo Moriyama on drums, recorded their debut album, 1969’s 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 in his book Free Jazz In Japan: A Personal History, Teruto 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!” (Many years later, he would actually perform on a burning piano while wearing head-to-toe fire protection gear; you can see the clip on YouTube.) Nakamura left the group pretty quickly, replaced by Akira Sakata; this second lineup (and eventually a third, with Shota Koyama replacing Nakamura on drums) would tour extensively in Europe and make a bunch of albums in the ’70s, finally disbanding in 1983.

I’ve been listening to Yamashita’s trio records a lot this summer. He made close to a dozen albums with these three different lineups, and I’ve heard most of them at this point. The majority of their catalog was recorded live, often at European festivals in places like Montreux and Heidelberg. They had a few compositions they returned to regularly — “Chiasma,” “Hachi,” “Clay” (a dedication to Muhammad Ali), “Mitochondria” — and they delivered a blistering take on Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” on both 1975’s Montreux Afterglow and the mind-blowing 1977 double LP Arashi, on which they were joined by second saxophonist Gerald Oshita and the Butoh dance troup Dairakudakan.

Another album, 1971’s Introducing Takeo Moriyama (later reissued as Gugan), was a real outlier in their catalog, as it added an ensemble called Brass 12, giving the music a unique free-jazz-big-band sound. They also recorded Distant Thunder, a live collaboration with German free jazz trumpeter Manfred Schoof, which began and ended with lengthy, fierce blowouts (“Mitochondria” and “Hachi”), and two solo pieces in the middle — Schoof playing Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Yamashita performing the title piece. Just listening to the core trio, though, is going to be more than enough for even the hardiest listeners. Sakata is an insanely hard-blowing saxophonist with a flair for the dramatic, and he can solo at stunning length without ever seeming to flag.

(I interviewed Sakata by email in 2019, and when I asked about his playing style, he said, “I spent significant time thinking how I could stand on the same line with [legendary Japanese saxophonist] Sadao Watanabe. And I came up with a solution — not to do anything that he was doing, because I couldn’t do anything that other musicians could. This idea is actually based on the advice by Charlie Parker for the young saxophonists I read somewhere in his biography. He said, ‘Take the deepest breath you can ever take, and move your fingers as fast as you can.’ And I thought, ‘This is it!’”)

Yamashita matches his stamina, and has a melodic invention and lyricism that will almost certainly remind you of Cecil Taylor, but with a more romantic and boppish feeling at the heart of his conception. And Nakamura’s drumming is simultaneously insanely busy and obsessively precise; every strike lands like a dart hurled by a world champion who just happens to have eight arms. (Koyama, who took over in the late ’70s, has a more thrashing style.) Most of the time, their pieces run between 15 and 20 minutes, though the title track from Up To Date is a single 40-minute piece originally split across two sides of vinyl but restored on CD.

These records can be tough to find; only two, Clay and a self-titled 1973 recording that wasn’t actually released until 2012, are on streaming services, and most of them have never been released on US labels, though many have been remastered and reissued on CD in Japan in the 21st century. Still, they’re well worth the search. And if you can find a copy of Soejima’s book, it’s not only a perfect companion to the music, but a source of 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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