Culturally, no country is an island, and it was not long before those outside Japan began to take notice and a series of international exchanges took place. In February 1971, the German All Stars visited Tokyo, and Manfred Schoof, Albert Mangelsdorff, Gerd Dudek, Michel Pilz and Wolfgang Dauner sat in with local musicians at New Jazz Hall, refusing to accept payment (Soejima suggested beers all round afterwards instead). Masahiko Sato and Dauner’s piano duo, Pianology (Express, 1971) is the only record of the first free jazz meeting between these nations, but Joachim E. Berendt, who co-produced the session, arranged for Sato’s trio to play at the Berlin Jazz Festival later that year. The piano was out of tune and their time had been reduced from 40 to 25 minutes. Sato refused to play, and Berendt took flowers to his hotel room to persuade him to go on. As can be heard on the recording, Penetration (Toshiba, 1972), Sato got his 40 minutes, but the piano is still lousy though heavily masked by extensive use of a ring modulator. Perhaps reflecting the importance of such exposure, it was initially released in Japan as a quadrophonic LP in a presentation box with obi-strip, the “sash” that fits over the spine of Japanese LPs and CDs. Sato was provided with better pianos in the recordings he made either side of his Berlin festival appearance, however: Trinity (Enja, 1971) a live studio date in Munich with Peter Warren (double bass) and Pierre Favre (drums) and Spontaneous (Enja, 1972) with Warren, Mangelsdorff (trombone) and Allen Blairman (drums), both highly successful collaborations.
Anthony Braxton visited Japan in 1973. His visa did not permit public performance, but there was a midnight recording session with Sato’s trio, which shows them completely at ease with his idiom and compositions, playing those tricky unison passages flawlessly. Four Compositions (1973) (Columbia, 1973) is one of Braxton’s best early albums, also notable for being one of the first ever digital recordings, made using experimental PCM technology with a now obsolete sampling frequency and bit rate, which might explain why, ironically, the album has never been released on CD. Double bassist Gary Peacock, who’d played with Ayler, Bill Evans and Paul Bley, had been living in Japan since 1969 and appeared on four significant trio albums with pianists Sato and Masabumi Kikuchi before his return to the US in 1972: Eastward (Sony CBS, 1970), Voices (Sony CBS, 1971),Poesy: The Man who Keeps Washing his Hands (Philips, 1971) and Samādhi (Express, 1972).
From 1973, some of the younger free jazz musicians began to visit Europe to do their “knight-errantry”, with Paris a focal spot. From the second half of the nineteenth century and the invention of “Japonisme”, there had been strong cultural ties between France and Japan and in the early 70s Paris had become something of a melting pot for free jazz with many expatriate musicians having taken up residence or working there for extended periods. Saxophonist Mototeru Takagi went for a year, picking up the nickname “monster” and recording Out from the Edge (Angelus, 1974) and Jazz a Maison de Japon, Paris (Nadja, 1974) with pianist Takashi Kako, who’d been turned on to free jazz while studying composition with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and Americans Kent Carter (double bass) and Ron Pittner (drums). Soejima writes of the track ‘Sekibutsu’ (“Stone Buddha”), “Takagi’s slow, elegant phrasings scream as if melting forever into eternity”.
Trumpet player Itaru Oki made a more long-term commitment to France. Describing himself as creating abstract spaces from internal waves, his trio’s album, Satsujin Kyoshitsu (“School for Murder”) (1970) had been the sole release on the Jazz Creaters label, set up by Soejima while at New Jazz Hall. On ‘A Dialogue with Water – Aporia’, Oki plays while dipping his trumpet into a bowl of water, like an extended mute, and ‘Flight in Space – Papillion’ replicates the movement of a butterfly. Well established in Tokyo, and to the astonishment of many, Oki announced he would be moving to Paris permanently in order to find his own place in European free jazz. In April 1974 he went on a 33 date, “sayonara” tour of Japan with his quartet, produced by Soejima. The performances got better as the tour progressed and audiences were stunned by the group’s intensity, adding extra poignancy to Oki’s departure. The last night was released as Shirasagi (Nadja, 1974), a landscape that echoes with electronically enhanced trumpet and Shoji Ukaji’s growling baritone, followed by music of crumbling density, driven by the friction of forces and counterforces. Oki went to Paris, and stayed, though he returned to Japan on occasions as heard on the recently released, Kami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017). Drummer Masahiko Togashi’s travels were limited due to his disability but in July 1979 he visited Paris leaving two records of his stay in the city of lights, consisting entirely of his own compositions: Song of Soil (Paddle Wheel, 1979) with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, and Colour of Dream (Paddle Wheel, 1980) with Kako, Albert Mangelsdorff and J.-F. Jenny-Clark (double bass), line-ups that give an indication of Togashi’s reputation, world-wide. As Cherry observed, “Togashi’s drumming is nothing like New York drumming. Togashi is Togashi”.
Akira Sakata arrived in Tokyo from Hiroshima in 1969, having agreed with his family that he would stay for three years to make it as a professional saxophone player, failing which he would return home. He worked as a driver and in a design studio and after work, absent the Williamsburg Bridge, would practice his alto in Yoyogi Park among the trees (subsequently, his jerky stage manner was attributed to stopping mosquitoes biting his legs). Travel further round the park and you could hear Shoji Ukaji practicing on his tenor. As an aside, parks and other unusual locations seem to have proved attractive. In the 1980s, the hardcore free jazz players, saxophonist Naoji Kondo and drummer Mitsumasa “Goku” Nonaka, nicknamed after a manga comic character (the importance of which in Japanese life should not be underestimated) performed in the corner of a park in Shinjuku, harassed by officials and police but supported by the local yakuza (mafia). Nonaka then raised his sights and played on top of Mount Fuji, no easy task given the difficult ascent, freezing temperature and reduced oxygen levels. In 1987 he decided to follow the route of the ancient Silk Road, across the Himalayas into India, then on to Western Asia and Istanbul, transporting 90kg of drum equipment to play solo shows wherever he stopped. His performance at a refugee camp in Afghanistan was welcomed by an overflowing crowd and his adventures are recorded in his book, Bachiatari (“Accursed”).
Returning to Sakata, his reputation grew. Kaoru Abe was an admirer but unlike Abe, Sakata was a team player, more interested in group performance. He appeared frequently with the Yosuke Yamashita trio and in late 1972 replaced Seiichi Nakamura on saxophone, introducing new energy levels. On Schoof’s recommendation, the trio were invited by Horst Weber to tour Europe in 1974 where they received an enthusiastic response, described in the press as “kamikaze jazz”, more diplomatically by Soejima as “the most powerful and exciting trio ever”. Over the next few years they proved more popular in Europe than Japan. Clay (Enja, 1974), recorded at the Moers International New Jazz Festival in Germany is a good example of their incendiary fervour and stamina, as is Montreux Afterglow (Frasco, 1976) with new drummer Shota Koyama, which contains a stonking version of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’. A quartet with Schoof (trumpet, flugelhorn) in Stuttgart is also recommended: Distant Thunder (Enja, 1975).
Inevitably, America beckoned, primarily for more mainstream musicians but also for some who played free jazz. After Togashi’s paralysing accident, Takagi formed a duo with drummer Sabu Toyozumi, another of those powerful sax and drums combos, as can be heard on If Ocean is Broken (Qbico, 2009) recorded in April 1971. Not long after that date, Toyozumi went to Chicago to check out AACM, arriving unannounced but welcomed at concerts and sessions, and became the first non-American member of the Association. After six months he moved to Paris and played with Braxton. then back to Japan via Bali where he spent four months studying gamelan music. Later, he arranged for overseas musicians to play with him in an annual series of duos, including John Zorn (the first of many visits to Japan) trombonist Paul Rutherford – Fragrance (NOL, 2000) –.and Wadada Leo Smith. On Cosmos has Spirit (Scissors, 1992) Smith plays trumpet, a self-made bamboo flute and kalimba, and Toyozumi “non-tempered” percussion.
In 1974, saxophonist Kaazutoki Umezo went to New York for a year, hanging out in the loft scene and recording Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai (ALM, 1975) with William Parker and others. He played with percussionist Tatsuya Nakamura who was also in New York, astounding the locals with his home-made instruments including a “quarter drum”, thirty pieces of plastic plumbing pipe of differing diameters and lengths with drumheads attached. After hearing the collection of festival performances, Inspiration and Power 14 (Trio, 1973) Bernard Stollman of New York’s ESP Records expressed an interest in making a series of recordings of Japanese free jazz, an exciting prospect given the prestigious status of the label. It was decided that guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions Unit would be the first and recordings sessions were held in April and May 1975. Since it was a foreign release it was given the title April is the Cruellest Month, taken from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Soejima wrote the liner notes (“a sound like a raging sea…a blast of wind…a jet engine in flight”) and the master tape was sent to ESP, who assigned it a catalogue number. Nothing further was heard. ESP went bust, Takayanagi shrugged his shoulders, “these things happen”, and it was not until after his death that the album was released on CD using a copy master retained by the producer (April Disk, 1991).
From the late 70s Western and Japanese improvisors were brought together in Japan in events often organised by the musicians themselves, picking out combinations that would provide a new challenge. Trumpet player Toshinori Kondo invited Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra, joining in their onstage antics -- Japan Japon (ICP, 1982) – and later brought over Peter Brötzmann, Bill Laswell and Henry Kaiser: Tokyo Meeting 1984 (Dessert/Tojusha, 1985). The 1982 Panmusik Festival, sponsored by the Goethe Institute, was one of Soejima’s favourites, and produced Contrast (Paddle Wheel, 1983) a trio of Togashi, Lauren Newton (voice) and Peter Kowald (double bass, harmonica) in a potpourri of scat, Japanese idioms, reverberant bass scrapes and pattering percussion. Kowald returned in 1986 and recorded Global Village Suite Improvised (FMP, 1988) with Danny Davis (alto saxophone, flute) and Takehisa Kosugi (violin), and the Japanese portion of Duos: Europa · America · Japan (FMP, 1991), his travelogue of improvised music.
Soejima was not the only person prominent in promoting and organising free jazz in Japan. There was also Akira Aida. Soejima and Aida had collaborated closely after the opening of New Jazz Hall but then fell out when the latter made a speech from the stage inciting the audience to attack the Pitt Inn, whose generosity had allowed the venue to operate. In consequence Takayanagi, who supported Aida’s right to make such statements, broke-off with Soejima. Having introduced Takayanagi and Abe, Aida was then the catalyst for the demise of the duo, telling them after one gig, “it’s still not right, not good enough”. Abe laughed but Takayanagi took umbrage, and that was the end of that. Takayanagi then made up with Soejima but Soejima was never reconciled with Aida – the soap opera that is musical life.
Aida had arranged for visits by Steve Lacy and Milford Graves to Japan and was the distributor for the FMP and Incus labels. He invited Derek Bailey to tour with a collection of leading free jazz musicians from his Hangesha collective – Abe, Kondo, Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass) and Toshiyuki Tsuchitori (drums). Bailey described Aida as a kind of Svengali figure, but all went well with audiences of up to six or seven hundred each night, making Bailey enough money to buy a car on his return to London. In addition to playing solo – New Sights, Old Sounds/Solo Live (Morgue, 1979) – the performances adopted the permutation format he favoured, as heard on the live Aida's Call (Starlight Furniture Co, 1999) and studio albums, Duo & Trio Improvisation (Kitty, 1978) and The Music...Hardcore Jazz (Kitty, 2003). Bailey was impressed by the different approach to ensemble dynamics and visited Japan again, including Company weeks in 1981 and 1993, as well as playing with Japanese musicians in Europe and America. Aida died in December 1978 at the age of 32, three months after Abe, suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.
Soejima left Japan for the first time in 1977 and visited the Moers festival, one of the preeminent free jazz festivals in the world: “There my eyes were opened wide and every avant-garde cell in my bloodstream went raging through my body.” The following year, producer Burkhard Hennen asked him to recommend musicians for each year’s festival, the beginning of an artistically fruitful relationship, though not financially rewarding. Soejima received no payment for his work and elected to stand his own annual air fare out of respect for the festival. As a result, each year European audiences were treated to free jazz from Japan – in 1979 the F.M.T. trio (Yoshiaki Fujikawa, alto saxophone, Keiki Midorikawa, bass and cello, Sabu Toyozumi, drums), in 1980 Takayanagi’s New Direction (his only overseas appearance, due to increasingly debilitating hepatitis) issued as Live at Moers Festival (Three Blind Mice, 1980) and in 1981, multi-reedist, Keizo Inoue. Much older than the generation with whom he played, Inoue had given Sakata clarinet lessons in Hiroshima and taught himself free jazz by playing along with records before he broke into the Tokyo scene in his fifties. There was a strong theatrical element to his performances: at an outside festival at Ueno Park (those parks again) he stopped playing and dove headfirst into the Shinobazu Pond, followed by members of the audience to rescue him. There was nothing quite as dramatic at Moers where he played solo sets over three days on the special projects stage and sat in with English band Alterations and his former pupil’s trio. The LP In Moers '81 (Trio, 1981), recorded over two nights, has the elemental ‘Himmel’, ‘Wasser’ and ‘Feuer’, played solo on side 1 and on side 2, ‘Passionato’, a sequence of six flickering duos and trios with Paul Lovens (percussion) and Günther Christmann (trombone, double bass) – expanded to the full fifteen sections on the CD release of 2002 – an inspired and serendipitous meeting of like-minded improvisors.
In gratitude for Soejima’s work, early on Hennen gave him permission to film performances at Moers, and thus began his documentary movies, a new one for each festival. For ten years Soejima would travel all over Japan showing them in small coffee bars and the like, shot on 8mm film with sound added from cassette recordings, answering questions afterwards and acting as a proselytizer for progressive music to audiences outside the major centres. As Otomo Yoshihide writes in his introduction to the book, “Anthony Braxton, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, all names we had only known from records and magazines, were there improvising right in front of us.” In the era of YouTube, we take much for granted.
Soejima was also responsible for promoting the Korean alto saxophonist Kan Tae Hwan. On first hearing his trio, Soejima noticed something different from anything in Europe or Japan and arranged for them to tour. In 1979, after the trio broke up, he organised a solo tour of Japan for Hwan alongside that year’s Moers documentary. His music was an absorbing blend of Asian folk music with textures and articulations associated with free jazz: circular breathing, layered multiphonics and extremes in register and dynamics. He played cross-legged and would use the floor as a resonant sounding board. The free jazz musicians of Japan were intrigued, hearing similarities with their own music but also a unique spirit. Hwan played with Sato and female percussionist Midori Takada at the Pitt Inn in 1990, a meeting of kindred spirits, as a result of which they formed the trio Ton-Klami (“Circle” in Korean). Their set at Moers in 1991 (In Moers (Ninety-One, 1993)) is striking, an imaginative use of quasi-minimalist processes with Hwan’s pulsating saxophone and the gamelan sonority of piano and marimba moving in and out of phase like superimposed waves of light, fading then forming into new patterns.
Particularly in his solo work, there’s a shamanistic quality to Hwan’s playing, slow accumulations that form part of a larger picture which unfolds gradually at a pace where conventional time seems to have stopped; spare, considered music in which each note and dynamic fluctuation are precisely weighted, every inflection carefully graded. There’s something of Abe’s sonic purity about him but projected from a place of internal balance. Two recent albums on the NoBusiness label are representative of his refinement and distillation: Prophecy of Nue with the Ton-Klami trio (2017) and the solo Live at Café Amores (2018), both taken from performances in 1995.
Yamashita in a reunion concert with those who made up the three versions of his classic trio, plus Naruyoshi Kikuchi (tenor) and Katsuo Kuninaka (bass guitar).