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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Book Review: Jazz Journeys to Japan, The Heart Within by William Minor

I first came across Japanese Jazz - nowadays known as J Jazz - at the start of the eighties when it became something of a hype on the jazz-funk scene which was descending into smooth jazz.

I’d already become sceptical about jazz-funk as I began exploring Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Miles and Bird, but others were paying big prices for records by Japanese musicians , generally backed by top Americans, which seemed entirely lightweight and disposable, but with undeniably high sound quality for the times.

The only record I remember is Hunt up Wind and the only artist names I remember are the musicians who made it: trombonist Hiroshi Fukumaru and featuring saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. Sadao is known by jazz listeners throughout the world as one of the legends of J Jazz, who’s been recording for almost sixty years, but Hiroshi doesn’t even get so much as a mention in the book. 

At the time I hated Hunt up Wind like the rest, but I’ve gradually come round to it and have thought for some time I should re-evaluate Japanese Jazz, but I knew I’d need help beyond my old jazz-funk friends. I’ve found two books on the subject in English and plumped for this one for no other reason than it was the best value at the time, though I intend to read the other after an appropriate period.

While I’m not altogether sure it works as a travelogue, the book traces several trips the author made to Japan to watch live jazz in clubs and festivals and to meet musicians and record executives. On his first trip he stopped off in Hawaii for a jazz festival; a tough gig but I guess somebody had to do it. 

One of the questions posed in the book is whether J Jazz swings like American jazz, whether it’s hip or has ‘soul’ or ‘feel’, and this is the subject of the other book Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan by E Taylor Atkins. Having listened to lots of J Jazz over recent months, my own view is that, given a blindfold test, I doubt most could tell the difference - I certainly couldn’t. Some of it’s good, some of it isn’t, just like American jazz.    

There is an issue that many of the musicians wear their American influences on their sleeves, and it sometimes seems to depend on no more than which American musicians toured the country.

Amorphism by Masahiko Satoh is very reminiscent of Chick Corea, in his solo work and the jazz-rock version of Return to Forever, and both his playing and composition. However, this is far less apparent on the live album Randooga, which includes some Japanese instrumentation and is far more explosive than is common in J Jazz.   

A fine saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe’s earliest recordings seem highly derivative but, from the late seventies onwards, it’s essentially smooth jazz of the most mundane order. I’m still searching for that mid-point in his trajectory.

I learned J Jazz has a history going right back to the origins of jazz and followed all its twists and turns, through Dixie, swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, modal, free and fusion - though with an attempted ban during the war years - and fusion seems to have avoided the disdain it typically receives in this country.

Just like in the days of vinyls, CDs of Japanese Jazz can be extremely expensive, though nowadays it can be hundreds or thousands, I’ve managed to track down a lot, with more by Katsumi Watanabe (no relation), Sleepy Matsumato, Tiger Okoshi and others on their way from Japan via the disrupted postal service.

The following are both affordable and recommended:

J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz from Japan vols 1 and 2.
Spiritual Jazz vol 8: Japan.
Toshiko Akiyoshi (another legend) - Let Freedom Swing.
Terumasa Hino - Kimiko.
Koichi Matzukaze Trio - Earth Mother.
Miyasaka - Animals Garden.
Eijiro Nakagawa - Funk 55.
Junko Onishi Trio - Cruisin'. 
Makoto Ozone - Nature Boys.
Yosuke Yamashita New York Trio feat Ravi Coltrane - Canvas in Vigor. 
Steve T

William Minor: Jazz Journeys to Japan, The Heart Within. University of Michigan, 2004. ISBN: 9780472113453

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