The 1970s produced some outstanding instances of work with larger ensembles, employing the resources of saxophonist and bandleader Toshiyuki Miyama and his New Herd Orchestra. Their Four Jazz Compositions - Based on Japanese Classical Themes (Toshiba, 1970) is a seamless blend of two musical cultures, masterfully orchestrated. Miyama invited pianist Masahiko Sato and percussionist Masahiko Togashi to work with the New Herd, producing two classic albums fashioned with a meticulous ear for distinctive combinations. Sato’s Canto of Libra (Columbia, 1970) and Togashi’s Canto of Aries (Columbia, 1971) mix the composed and improvised in fresh imaginings of single and massed instrumental voices, owing as much to the translucent textures of Debussy and Stravinsky’s orchestral works as they do to the vibrancy of big band jazz.
Togashi’s Spiritual Nature (East Wind, 1975) is a suite for nine musicians playing an array of instruments including cello, flutes, saxophones, piano, celeste, marimba and glockenspiel, creating a deliciously exotic, multi-coloured sound world, in the minds of some depicting Japanese landscapes. Just as original is Sato and the New Herd’s Nayutageno (Columbia, 1976), a mural of highly charged solo activity set against static blocks of orchestral sound. In some episodes they seem to exist in different timeframes. El Al (Union, 1979) was written for the New Herd by Takashi Kako, who had graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with the Prix de Composition in 1976, and features himself (piano), Akira Sakata (alto sax and clarinet) and Togashi amongst swirling woodwind and rasping horns.
At the end of the decade Togashi and his Improvisation Jazz Orchestra produced Al-Alaph (Paddle Wheel, 1980), conducted by Sato, who also plays piano and electric piano, and using three percussionists. It’s a 75-minute opus of contrasting sections unified by a theme that recurs in various guises, like an idée fixe – chanted by the musicians at the opening over an elaborate drum beat, hauntingly extended by the saxophones in ‘Winds’, sounded out over the hubbub of ‘Streets’, and forming a backdrop of shifting chords on ‘Lonely’. Elements of the theme are also used as the basis for improvised solos. The same forces subsequently recorded Follow the Dream (Paddle Wheel, 1985), this time with Masayuki Takayanagi on guitar, another diverse collection lasting almost 90 minutes, ranging from the exquisitely crafted to boisterous blowouts. All these albums stand comparison with Mingus, Gil Evans and the best of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and Globe Unity for their ingenious synthesis of scored and improvised music, rhythmic vitality and novel voicings.
Given how brightly the fires burned in the 1970s, inevitably, the temperature cooled somewhat in the 1980s and beyond. There was more concord than discord with the ambit of the music widening further as new forms and styles were incorporated. Some musicians simply moved beyond genre. As so often, much of this had been prefigured by Sato. He composed, conducted and arranged the album Amalgamation (Liberty, 1971). Part 1 crosscuts between a brass ensemble, string quartet, far-out rock band, funky Hammond organ and the voice of Adolf Hitler in a rudimentary collage that sounds somewhere between Frank Zappa and John Zorn. Part 2 seeks to integrate by layering traditional Japanese music with a free jazz dialogue between Mototeru Takagi (reeds) and Toyozumi Yoshisaburo (drums), chants and churchy organ, and ethereal, wordless vocals.
In a different direction, the piano duo album Exchange (Victor, 1979) by Haruna Miyake and Yosuke Yamashita is a prismatic display that comes directly from the sound of contemporary classical piano music; one of the tracks is even called ‘Schoenberg’. The piece “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’ is an ambitious improvisation around the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the theme from the slow movement of the symphony, recast in continually changing contexts, with the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony thrown in for good measure. This is more than mere hybridisation however, and makes a surrealistic sense. Yamashita and Togashi, previously regarded as quite different strains of the free jazz scene, performed as a duo on Kizashi (Next Wave, 1980): a counterpoint of melodic lines on both drums and piano, now dancing rather than boxing. Yamashita gradually turned his virtuoso gifts to shedding new light on a broader repertoire and reimagining the history of jazz piano, with affection not irony, in combinations that in their own way are as creative as his earlier work. His Bolero (Enja, 1986) with Hozan Yamamoto, one of the leading figures in shakuhachi (bamboo flute) music, is another fascinating merger of East and West.
Togashi was also at home in contemporary music. The composer and pianist Yuji Takahashi had studied in Paris with Xenakis and recorded the complete Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage. In 1976 he and Togashi played together on the album Twilight (Denon, 1977) and later began to perform publicly as an improvising duo (Duo Live 1988 (Masahiko Togashi Archives, 2014)). They can also be heard on Hall Egg Farm (Egg Farm, 2009) with Steve Lacy. Increasing his musical horizons even further, in 1993 Sato took part in the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of the Buddhist teacher Kakuban at the Bodokan, performing and conducting his own composition for a small orchestra comprised mainly of free jazz musicians, augmented by a chorus of one thousand monks using random vocalisations and tunings. No recording was made of the microtonal monks, and probably none could do them justice.
The Eastasia Orchestra was a unit led by alto saxophonist Yoshiaki Fujikawa, a smorgasbord of Asian roots music – traditional Indian and Chinese melodies, gamelan rhythms, Japanese oiwake folk sounds – wrapped up in a bouncy big band with free jazz blowing. Conducted by Fujikawa, and full of surprises, he would pick out soloists, duos and trios on the spot to liven up the arrangements. Their 1984 tour of Europe was a huge success, culminating in a concert at the Volksbühne (“People’s Theatre”) in East Berlin before an audience of three thousand: Jazzbühne Berlin '84 (Repertoire, 1991). The following day, enthusiastic customs officials who’d heard the performance waived them through passport control without the need for a baggage check.
Such exercises in cross-pollination led Soejima to write, in 1990:
“Because jazz is a living thing, if you cram it into a jar and shut the lid, it dries up and dies. So waking up to other types of improvised music, combining them with jazz, genetically modifying them to become new types of music is a positive development…What is called “free jazz” may be thought of as something between death and reincarnation.”Which might be as good a definition as you’ll find.
One particularly moving story is that of the double bass player Motoharu Yoshizawa, who was more interested in understanding himself and those about him than the technicalities of music making, playing solo but frequently with others for extra stimulus. Duo 1969.10.9 (PSF, 1994) with Mototeru Takagi, which contains an impassioned rendering of Ornette’s ‘Lonely Woman’, <Nord> Duo '75 (ALW, 1981) with Kaoru Abe, Two Chaps (Chap Chap, 2015) with Evan Parker, and Oh My, Those Boys! (NoBusiness, 2018) with fellow bassist Barre Phillips are all of the highest quality. Suffering from liver problems, in the last year of his life he collaborated with the Gyaatees, a group of monks with learning disabilities. As he told Soejima on the telephone:
“They are all really great. It may be hard to get them coordinated for sutra chanting, but each of them sings with an absolutely pure heart. This is real improvising.”Knowing the end was near, Yoshizawa organised a “Memorial Service for the Living Motoharu Yoshizawa” to take place on September 15, 1998, to which the Gyaatees were invited. It was rumoured it would be his last performance, but he passed three days beforehand and the concert became a true memorial.
Soejima’s narrative ends as one century turns into the next, and the emergence of figures such as guitarist Otomo Yoshihide and pianist and band leader Satoko Fujii. The story of free jazz in Japan doesn’t end with the close of the twentieth century, but his book is a salutary reminder of why music matters and the importance it can have in the lives of performers and listeners alike. Free jazz is a universal language that has many dialects, some with roots in national cultures. Innovation and originality are attempts to find a vocabulary for a language yet to be formulated in musical experience. Bearing that in mind, there are certain characteristics and concerns within the music discussed over the last three days – by no means unique or generic, and which admit of degrees – which can be considered distinctive of the Japanese free jazz parlance developed during this period. They are features that range from tangible timbres (how stuff sounds) to more abstract considerations, alternative ways to experience and think about music.
A great deal of the music exhibits a sensitivity to space and proportion – what in Japan is called “ma” – a respect for the balancing attributes of positive and negative space, which can be found everywhere from woodprints and ink wash paintings to garden design and shakuhachi music. There’s a heightening of spatial depth and a feeling for the texture of time passing (in the West, something similar can be found in certain black and white photography and film). Sounds are given room to breathe according to their own distinct resonances, a peculiarly sensual engagement where the subject is sonority and how it can be handled according to an internal, self-engendered logic that has regard to the power of silence as well as the clashes that can activate that space. The result is musical development that is more environmental than structural, and where sound can have the presence of colour, an almost synesthesthetic experience. Writing about the “transcendental ambient creations” of Takayanagi’s solo Action Direct , Soejima says:
“Sound is supposed to be vibration, but when converted to particles and waves, tone changes to colour and a huge kaleidoscopic space is created. It changes into physical matter, each tone heavy and dense.”The integration of traditional instruments and ancient ways of thinking are also relevant, perhaps echoing Japanese perspectives on our relationship to history – not reproducing the past but using it to liberate the present and produce something grounded but new, more concerned with cyclical continuity than an ascending line of progress that casts off what went before. On Essence by Togashi's Guild for Human Music (Denon, 1977) cello, flute and saxophones are delicately woven over traditional rhythmic patterns played on marimba and assorted percussion. Sato and the New Herd’s Yamataifu (Express, 1972) is an imaginatively scored portrait of the Yamataikoku legend, the land where Japan began, in which jazzy accents combine with folk-like tunes and avant-garde textures. Sato manipulates the sound of his piano using live electronics in a way that evokes antique instruments and yet at the same time sounds completely modern.
Buddhist thought provides the general framework for his three solo piano albums recorded in January, March and April 1976, considered by Soejima to be a pinnacle of 1970s free jazz in Japan: Multi-Spheroid, Yǔn (“Acceptance”) and Kwan-Ji-Zai, all on the Denon label – according to Soejima, “like a three-sided mirror reflecting Sato’s own consciousness”. The album Kwan-Ji-Zai, named after the Goddess of mercy, was improvised while Sato was looking at the art of calligrapher Katsuhiko Sato, playing “just in the same way as you cast your shadow”. At Moers in 1982, he performed with live calligraphy as inspiration and Japanese dancer Tadashi Endo responding to the music, released (audio only) as Apostrophe (Crown, 1993).
There are times when the pentatonic scales of Japanese music lend a distinctive flavour, something Soejima identifies as a distinguishing feature when comparing Yamashita’s playing with the more blues-based chords of Cecil Taylor. There can also be a noticeably different sense of rhythm and how it functions, possibly influenced by taiko drumming. Even when using a standard drumkit it’s a sound that can stress skin rather than stick, with equal weight given to strong and weak beats and less emphasis on rhythmic subdivisions. Pulse is a matter of pacing rather than metre. As Togashi said of his solo percussion recording, Rings (East Wind, 1976), divided into twelve parts corresponding to the months of the year and changes in the seasons, “It’s neither a metronome nor a jazz beat. There are more natural rhythms in the natural world”.
Soejima’s book is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in free jazz and provides a gateway to not only a body of work which is at risk of being forgotten but some of the most challenging and inventive music the medium has produced. A great deal deserves to be better known and there’s a danger it will be increasingly overlooked outside the low-profile world of free jazz, and within that realm, sunk under the tsunami of new releases. For many years the limited availability of these albums, even within Japan, high import costs, language barriers and the self-effacing nature of Japanese culture meant that only the most determined, and those with deep pockets, were able to access the recordings. That has changed as a result of the Internet. Many of the albums are available on Inconstant Sol, due to the sterling work of Nick, Ernst Nebhuth and others. (I’m grateful to Ernst for an illuminating exchange of emails while writing this review.) There’s also Different Perspectives in my Room..! , that specialises in quality vinyl rips, and YouTube which has a good selection of albums in acceptable sound. There are occasional new releases and re-releases. NoBusiness recently put out An Eternal Moment, a 1995 concert from Kang Tae Hwan and his favourite percussionist, Midori Takada, and Takayanagi’s April is the Cruellest Month has just been released for the first time on vinyl by the Blank Forms label.
Soejima passed on 12 July 2014 at the age of 83. At his funeral a recording was played, which he made shortly before his death: “Even standing before the ruler of hell, I expect to act as a free man. That is what life is all about.” Almost unheard of in Japan, the mourners applauded as one.
Kaoru Abe in 1977, the year before his death.