Sunday, July 24, 2011

Head Over Heels for Japan

The first time I listened to Jazz from Japan was many years ago when I visited the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, maybe better known for readers of this blog as being the home of the International Criminal Court ICC. We stepped into one of the concert venues, checking out a Jazz pianist we had never heard of and were amazed to discover the way he played, hitting the keys like Jackson Pollock performed his action painting: a spontaneous expression of improvisation based on a deep knowledge of forms, figures and history. As it turned out, the pianist was Yosuke Yamashita from Japan. Similarly "crazy" was the drummer that pushed things forward, Pheeroan Aklaff. It was left to Cecil McBee, the stoic bass player from Oklahoma, to give a frame to the hitting and beating on stage. 

on fire: Yosuke Yamashita

I discovered another Jazz pianist from Japan a few months ago through "The Jazz Nightly by @Yorikirii", my own little jazz newspaper that is published every night at 2pm GMT via Twitter. Yes, you can actually subscribe to this paper! Her name is Ai Kuwabara. She is young, she is energetic and I think she is fantastic. She has an approach to Jazz piano that encompasses elements of rock music, funk and the history of jazz, together with the expressionism that I have come to appreciate in Japanese jazz. 

from here to there: Ai Kuwabara

Jazz in Japan has a long tradition. Japan even has, according to some estimates, the largest proportion of jazz fans in the world. Jazz practice began to emerge in Japan in the early 1920s, in the entertainment districts of Osaka and Kobe. During World War II, jazz was considered "enemy music" and banned in Japan. How original is Japanese jazz? Frequently it has been criticized as a poor, unworthy initiation of US jazz. Japanese jazz artists are certainly struggling to overcome their "anxiety of influence", as E. Taylor Atkins describes it in "Blue Nippon", his book about Jazz in Japan. But what creative person doesn't suffer form anxiety of influence, of losing his or her authenticity? Unquestionably, as Michael Pronko explains, a American writer living in Japan, Japanese jazz artists have a love-hate relationship with America. But they also see Jazz as a form, a style, a pattern. Would the secret of Japanese jazz to be found in Zen? Is Zen the source of extended, intense improvisations, of this feeling of "being in the moment" that distinguishes Japanese jazz, in my ears, from Jazz found and played elsewhere?

Ai Kuwabara is also on Twitter, going by the name of @aikun_4649. I tried to get in touch with her for this post, asking her questions via Twitter, but she never responded. How do you deal with jazz being a male dominated art form? What is the essence of Japanese jazz? Is your style unique? What emotions you want to convey with your music? Questions were many, but answers were none. Ai Kuwabara left me with improvising my own replies. 

Might I have more luck with Hiromi Uehara? She is equally wonderful, equally expressive, a well established artist on the scene, her latest album being "Voice", a trio project with Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips, recorded in Hoboken New Jersey, hometown of Frank Sinatra. The "All About Jazz magazine" is raving about Hiromi, calling her the Hendrix and Van Halen of the piano. Yes, she is that good. I don't see her on Twitter, so I wouldn't know how to get in contact with her. Simply writing a letter seems like a thing from the age of the Flintstones in our 3rd millennium. Luckily there is extensive promotion going on for Hiromi on YouTube, where she talks about her approach to music. The new possibilities of the internet will bring a new spring to the almost lost art that is jazz. 

a great voice: Hiromi Uehara

Japanese jazz fans have the reputation of being fanatics. They know everybody and everything about jazz. They are oscillating between "kuwashii", which means to have intimate knowledge about something and "otaku", which is kind of like "nerd" with the sense of being obsessive. Obsession has brought about great achievements and great suffering for Japan. At times it seems that Japanese are all heads, all thoughts. Jazz seems to be the perfect outlet of the Japanese character, giving way to expression, to improvisation, to intellect and emotions at the same time. Just like Homare Sawa did with her right heel. No, she is not another jazz musician, she's the captain of the Japanese football team that won the womens' world cup one week ago. Her goal in the final game against the US was neither kuwashii nor otaku, it was pure JAZZ. 

a heeler for a healer: Homare Sawa