Part 1 of 3
Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History is the long-awaited English translation, by Kato David Hopkins, of Teruto Soejima’s Nihon Furī Jazu-Shi (“The History of Japanese Free Jazz”) published in 2002. It’s available through the Public Bath Press website and from London’s Iklektic from where I got my copy. Other specialist venues and stores may also be stocking it.
The translator’s subtitle is significant. Free jazz in Japan is a truly vast subject, even for the limited period covered by Soejima. He doesn’t purport to deal with everything, just how he saw it and the part he played, with a liberal smattering of anecdotes some of which you really couldn’t make up. During this three-part review I’ll mention many albums that are invaluable documents from an era full of startling creativity and riches. Most are discussed by Soejima, but it’s not a definitive list and readers should feel free to add their own recommendations in the comments section after the third part of the review has been posted. I’ll be using the Western convention of family names last, which is how the musicians tend to be listed on Discogs and elsewhere. The book places family names first, in Japanese order.
Soejima was at the centre of free jazz during its formative years in Japan, acting as organiser, promoter, journalist, catalyser, confidant and peacemaker. In many respects it’s a familiar story – the more things change, the more they stay the same – mirroring the development of music, culture and politics at the time, both in Japan and internationally. There are formidable egos, fragile temperaments, fights over how to end numbers, petty feuds, cultural fusion, remarkable fortitude, high farce and tragic fatality, but above all a burning passion to create something immediate and new, a conviction that the world was changing, anything was possible, and free jazz was the medium in which to achieve it. In a way, Japan’s separation from the established centres of jazz, previously regarded as a shortcoming, became one of its principal advantages. As in Europe, the distance allowed a less self-conscious break with jazz traditions and a more ready adoption of other influences – domestic and foreign, contemporary and historic – combined with a rate of accelerated growth probably unmatched elsewhere. No doubt, much of the groundwork had already been done in America and Europe but the speed at which Japanese musicians absorbed and innovated is astounding.
The narrative opens fifty years ago in 1969, the year in which free jazz reached maturity in Japan, signalled by landmark performances and recordings from many of the musicians who were to dominate the scene in the following years. Soejima is attending a rehearsal in late August by guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions trio, held in a back room at Shinjuku’s Pitt Inn, Tokyo.
“A tremendous blast of sound seemed to blow the air out of the windowless chamber. It was, in fact, an intensely creative sound. Wrapped around the machine gun staccato of Yoshisaburo Toyozumi’s drumming, Motoharu Yoshizawa’s bowed bass raised its voice in a low moan. And slashing all around them was Masayuki Takayanagi’s guitar. This was free jazz”.The trio were playing ‘Mass Projection’, one of Takayanagi’s signature pieces, rehearsing for their debut recording the next month, Independence: Tread on Sure Ground (Union, 1970). That number didn’t make it onto the album but can be heard on Live Independence (P.S.F, 1995) taken from performances in 1970 which give a good idea of the kinetic kick that floored Soejima. During the trio’s appearances at the run-down Nagisa jazz coffee shop the vibrational energy was so great that paint fell from the decrepit ceiling onto the audience, like flakes of snow. Takayanagi was the instigator of the Japanese school of guitar-shredding but was far more than a mere noise merchant, having the skill to trap, mould and release unruly swathes of sound, exercising judgment in deciding when to let loose and how to control. “I am not a noise artist,” he said, “I am making noisy music”, and more tellingly, “The goal has been finding concrete expression for the stillness and motion inherent in space”, an indication of a particularly Japanese aesthetic that was to pervade much of the music.
Earlier in 1969, a quintet led by drummer Masahiko Togashi and trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki recorded Variation (Takt, 1969). The title track opens out into variations of a very different kind to those usually expected and ‘Suzu No Uta’ (“Bell Song”) consists of an unbroken piano run against a background of glittering percussion; further signs of the emergence of a fresh conception of musical space. In May, Togashi, along with Takayanagi, Mototeru Takagi (tenor, cornpipe), and Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass, cello) recorded We Now Create - Music for Strings, Winds and Percussion (Victor, 1969). Something quite new is going on here, from the opening screeching guitar and strangulated tenor of ‘Variations on a Theme of "Feed Back"’ to the flowing but incisive drums of ‘Artistry in Percussion’ and the concluding ‘Fantasy for Strings’, a textural melange of nervous acoustic guitar, plucked cello, twittering cornpipe and microscopic bursts of percussion. The album suggests many possible directions, which may be why it’s considered by some to be the start of the free jazz era in Japan, and shared joint honours as jazz record of the year. The other album was Palladium (Express, 1969) from a trio led by pianist Masahiko Sato (also spelt “Satoh”). Sato had returned to Japan in 1968, having completed his composition coursework at Berklee College of Music two years into the four-year course, when he was told there was nothing further they could teach him. In the following years he would exhibit a dazzling technical and imaginative versatility, producing innovative music in many fields, as pianist, collaborator, composer, arranger and conductor. The compositions of Messiaen were an early influence, as can be heard in the shimmering pianism of his solo, Holography (Columbia, 1970). Palladium featured Yasuo Arakawa on double bass, and Togashi on drums – he and Sato worked together closely – and includes a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ where the theme emerges from an impressionistic swirl, then floats slowly into abstraction.
Shortly thereafter, the trio recorded a performance given at the prestigious Sankei Hall, Deformation (Express, 1969) which lends weight to Soejima’s claim that Sato’s thinking was about ten years ahead of the rest. During the first half of the concert live electronic sounds are woven into the ensemble texture and in the second half the trio is accompanied at points by a pre-recorded orchestral score (presumably, composed by Sato) which is joined in the final stages by the drones and chants of a choir. During the intermission there was tape of an old woman singing a traditional folk song, retained on the album.
By this stage, Soejima was aware of something important in the air and had begun running a jazz magazine. He was invited to join the newly established (and short-lived) Japan Jazz Association, which in September 1969 put on “Concert in New Jazz” at Sankei Hall featuring Togashi’s ESSG (Experimental Sound Space Group) and pianist Yosuke Yamashita’s trio. Yamashita had started playing with the trio in March of that year, featuring Seiichi Nakamura on saxophones and Takeo Moriyama, drums, in high-octane energy music that swept all before it. They’d been invited to perform “behind the barricades ” in a basement during the student occupation of Waseda University in July, released as Dancing Kojiki (Maro, 1969). The opening track, ‘Agitation’, is a student announcement on megaphone, the remainder incandescent piano pounding, tumultuous drumming and a soprano saxophone that sounds on occasions like a wailing siren. An abridged version of the September Sankei Hall performance was released as Concert in New Jazz (Union, 1969) (the full version appeared on CD in 1991) and was followed swiftly by Mina’s Second Theme (Victor, 1969), named after one of the staples of the trio’s sets. This was music physical and direct, as Yamashita pronounced:
“Jazz is more like boxing or soccer, with sound…What the “player” should rightly be striving for is not “a work of art” in any sense, but the best possible kick he can make at that particular moment. That’s all.”Fittingly, Yamashita wrote ‘Clay’ for the soundtrack of the film, April Fool: Coming Muhammad Ali (URC, 1972).
Taking a different path, in November a quartet comprising Togashi, Sato, Takagi and Yoshio Ikeda (double and electric bass) recorded Speed and Space – The Concept of Space in Music (Union, 1969), an exploration of Togashi’s notion of Jikanritsu (“Time Law”). The album can be seen as a study in how texture, rhythm and differing rates of change effect our perception of the passage of time in music – the superimposed layers of ‘Panorama’, the floating world of ‘Expectation’, fast-paced and expanding in ‘Speed and Space #1’, and the gaseous state of ‘#2’, the sound of air moving and slow-motion formations made up of cymbal whispers, drifting notes, chimes and rumbling piano. Reflecting the Japanese concern for sonic quality, the LP’s sleeve dealt with the disposition of musicians and microphones at the session and use of the then state-of-the art Neumann SX68 cutting lathe to produce the master lacquer.
It was also in November 1969 that Soejima opened New Jazz Hall. It was the same former instrument storage room at Pit Inn at which he’d heard Takayanagi’s trio rehearsing back in August, a “hall” only in the sense that no drinks were served. From Friday to Sunday it functioned as an experimental laboratory for the new music which continued to flourish. On 19 December, Togashi and Takagi went into the studio to record the soundtrack for Masao Adachi’s film, A.K.A. Serial Killer, concerning the recently convicted mass-murderer, Norio Nagayama, an instance of “landscape cinema” which forgoes actors or narrative in favour of scenes of places where Nagayama had lived or which he visited, with no audio apart from music and the occasional voice-over from the director. Takagi plays tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and cornpipe and Togashi a range of tuned and untuned percussion. The music is completely improvised and attempts to depict the psychological and emotional states of Nagayama during three phases of his life. Togashi tried to forget all his learnt techniques to achieve the right level of spontaneity and authenticity. “I think we pushed ourselves pretty close to the edge” he later observed.
This was the last performance Togashi would record with the use of his legs. Six weeks later he was involved in an accident that damaged his spinal cord leaving him paralysed from the waist down. During his convalesce after discharge from hospital, he edited the soundtrack to produce Isolation (Columbia, 1971), an album that ranks alongside other ground-breaking pairings of reeds and percussion – Coltrane and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space, recorded in 1967 but not released until 1974, and New Acoustic Swing Duo by Willem Breuker and Han Bennink (ICP, 1967) – and is one of many outstanding recordings in the duo format from Japan. When the movie premiered a few years later members of the audience attended with tape recorders to capture the complete performance.
New Jazz Hall closed in May 1971 due to financial difficulties (its audiences had ranged from five to thirty on a good night) and relocated to the Pulcinella, a small puppet theatre, for ten days each month. One night, a knife-wielding chef from an adjoining restaurant burst in – he’d been putting up with this noise for three years and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Wisely, Soejima did not point out that it had been operating as a music venue for not nearly that long and had a soundproof steel door installed. It was one of a number of small clubs, cafes and bars which hosted free jazz that sprang up in Tokyo over the years; Soejima calls them “incubators”. There was Station ’70, with a mirrored ceiling and wall made up of TV screens, an expense that might explain why it only lasted until January 1971. More frugally, Shoji Aketagawa used the basement of a rice shop to open the imaginatively titled “A Shop Where Only My Uncompromising Jazz Performer Friends Can Appear”, seating twenty people. Later, there was the Om bar, holding a similar number who were encouraged to cheer on the musicians, described by Peter Brötzmann as the smallest jazz club in the world but having the hottest atmosphere. If the proprietor, Hiroshi Torii, thought a performer was flagging he’d jump on the bar, shouting, and splash them with water or drinks.
There were also bigger ventures. In 1973, Soejima was involved in organising the first major free jazz festival in Japan, Inspiration and Power 14, held over fourteen nights and featuring most of the leading musicians from the scene. Trio Records agreed to record the festival and put out a 2-LP set later that year, an album which showcases the variety of music being made, from solo bass to big band. Due to the number of performers, each extract is limited to about ten minutes, including the duo of Sato and Togashi, whose performance marked Togashi’s return to the public stage. After having suffered a disability that would have put an end to the working life of most drummers, Togashi had relearned how to play using a specially designed wheelchair and kit (his bass drum was mounted to one side). If anything, his percussive play was even more inventive, having a lighter tone and crisper edge. An expanded version of he and Sato’s excellent set from the festival was released as Sohsyoh (“Double Crystal”) (Trio, 1973) and complete as Kairos (PJL, 2003). Togashi, a percussionist and composer of immense subtlety and finesse, went on to produce many impressive albums in the ensuing years in groups of all sizes. His duo and trio recordings with Steve Lacy are particularly recommended.
One musician who did not appear at the festival, due to hospitalisation, was the saxophonist Kaoru Abe, a defining musician of the decade – brilliant, volatile and self-destructive, whose paint-stripping alto could also turn sweetly melodic. He first came to Soejima’s attention in February 1969, aged 19, when he saw him perform in a duo with drummer Hozumi Tanaka, and was impressed with his fiery energy, like throwing knives at the audience, two of whom were chatting until Abe stopped and shouted, “Hey you, shut the fuck up and listen”. Soejima invited him to perform at New Jazz Hall in a series of collaborations that were more often confrontations. He played with guitarist Takayanagi, one of the few musicians able to handle him, their first meeting lasting several hours with no breaks, until Abe went blue in the face. There was only one release from this short-lived duo during their lives, Deconstructive Empathy (Sound Creators, 1970), taken from their concert in June 1970, “Projection for the Annihilation of Jazz” – these guys didn’t mess about – an album which still sounds extraordinary: an expression of something primary, almost pre-human, in which stable musical space is replaced by a sound-world wrested from the release of psychic energy, yet avoids disintegrating into chaos (just). Two albums of their sets at Station '70 shortly thereafter were released by DIW in 2001: Mass Projection and Gradually Projection.
Abe was part of the Hangesha collective that recorded with Milford Graves ( Meditation Among Us (Kitty, 1977)) but on the subsequent tour he stood facing Graves, blasting until the drummer gave up. “Milford quit first, so he lost” Abe boasted on leaving the stage and was sacked for the remainder of the tour. He also seemed to occupy another world when not playing, explaining an absence as due to his involvement with a war in Argentina, and once arrived at the Gaya jazz club dressed and made up as a schoolgirl, complete with satchel. He would ring Soejima at 2.00 in the morning, asking if it was possible to kill a person with sound, conversations that would last until sunrise, and was addicted to sleeping tablets, then pain killers – 3 would be left in the morning out of a bottle of 100. They burnt a hole in his stomach, and he died at 7.35 on September 9, 1978 at the age of 29. The drummer Sabu Toyozumi, his duo partner for the previous eighteen months, carried his body back to his apartment. Abe’s wife, the writer Isumi Suzuki, took her own life eight years later.
There have been many posthumous albums of Abe’s music, mostly his sui generis solo concerts such as the various Live at Gaya and Live at Passe-Tamps CDs. The first release after his death was Overhang-Party - A Memorial to Kaoru Abe (ALM-Uranoia, 1979), two duo sets with Toyozumi from August 1978, and the most recent Mannyoka (NoBusiness, 2018) again, a pair of duo performances with Toyozumi from Abe’s final year. Soejima wrote his own eulogy in the liner notes to Overhang Party: “Hardly any other sax players in history have managed to get a tone that so matched their individuality”. Abe is a difficult musician to assess: as a listener you either go with him all the way or decide to do something else instead; like the man there are no half-measures. He’s challenging, compelling, utterly uncompromising, emotionally naked -- at its most potent, his playing has a purity of purpose that acts as a direct transmission of feelings without intervention – but also draining, erratic disturbing. At times it can be akin to witnessing an exorcism. Abe may have accepted all this, taking the view that for him there was no clear division between art and life, reaching for everything and falling short was preferable to accepting limitations, and that expressing the irreducible complexity of things cannot be achieved without risk and perturbation. In 1970, in answer to a survey question, “What are you trying to say?”, he responded:
“How to have a sound that stops all judgement. A sound that doesn’t disappear. A sound that weaves through all kinds of images. A sound that comes from both death and birth. A dying sound. A sound with presence. A sound that is forbidden forever. A sound that can’t be owned. The sound of going insane. A sound full of the cosmos. The sound of sound…”A collection of scenes from Koji Wakamatsu’s 1995 biopic of Abe, Endless Waltz, based on Mayumi Inaba’s book of that name, accompanied by a searing account of ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ by Abe and percussionist Yasukazu Sato, taken from a recording made in a classroom at Tohoku University in 1971: Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki (“As Acadia Rain Stops”) (Wax, 1997).
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