October 25, 2021

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Various Artists: J Jazz Volume 3: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan Album Review


One of the many hidden narratives of post-WWII Japan is its long-running jazz scene. This taste for the most American of art forms intensified after the war, when a crackdown on what was considered the music of the enemy ended, the interests of stationed U.S. troops helped reignite the scene, and, later, touring legends found a willing market. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Japan was a hub of jazz invention, even if much of the music recorded was released on severely limited runs or private presses, meaning it barely traveled within the country, let alone beyond it. A half century later, the period is a cave of wonders for even for the most dedicated genre fanatic. The breadth of it may be beyond full encapsulation—thankfully, collectors Tony Higgins and Mike Peden are giving it a shot.

Working with British label BBE—probably best known for releasing records by J Dilla, Madlib, Pete Rock, and other bohemian rap artists—Higgins and Peden have spent the past few years reviving hidden Japanese jazz for Western audiences with a series of reissues under the banner of J Jazz. Though the collection includes full-album reissues—I’m partial to the Tohru Aizawa Quartet’s Tachibana and Koichi Matsukaze Trio + Toshiyuki Daitoku’s Earth Mother—it’s the J Jazz compilations that have provided the pillars of Higgins and Peden’s preservation work. Here, for the third time, the pair have assembled a comprehensive set of vintage cuts to help capture the scope of that crucial 1960s to 1980s period.

J Jazz Volume 3: Deep Modern Jazz from Japan opens with Yasuhiro Kohno Trio + One’s “Song of Island” and a storm of solo piano keys. When the rest of the band enters and the full arrangement kicks in, Kohno’s delightful playing sits perfectly next to guest Masahiro Kanno’s smooth vibraphone as the pair take turns in front. The cymbals don’t so much crash as hum in the background. Like many of the selections in this set, “Song of Island” was recorded live—polite applause greets the end of the solos—and the mastering work at Carvery Studio in London preserves a warm, organic sound. This edition is probably the strongest evidence yet that the Japanese jazz drew not just from its American counterparts, but from an array of global sounds. Plenty of compositions roam far beyond conventional jazz borders, and some of them push the limit of the term’s meaning: Hiroshi Murakami & Dancing Sphinx’s “Phoebus,” recorded in 1978, features driving West African rhythms; Hideo Shiraki’s “Groovy Samba” (a CD-only bonus track) lives up to its title. Maybe nothing encapsulates the genre synthesizing better than Eiji Nakayama’s “Cumorah,” which features a Spanish guitar lead before developing into a full flamenco workout, while the song’s title, surprisingly, refers to a hill in Ontario County, New York, on which Latter-day Saints say their prophet Joseph Smith discovered the golden plates that would inspire the Book of Mormon.

Experimental moments are balanced by more traditional arrangements. “Song for Hope”—cooler than the hymn-like title suggests—is by Aki Takase Trio, an outfit led by a pianist said to be the compositional disciple of Charles Mingus and one-time Lester Bowie collaborator. An equally impressive performance comes with “Planets” by Masaru Imada Trio +1, a soothing late-night number that drapes the lead piano in elegant double bass and drums. Kohsuke Mine’s looping “Morning Tide” shows how young Japanese players were pivoting at the end of the 1960s to post-modal and free jazz forms.

There are occasional dips in quality—the guitars on the second half of Tatsuya Nakamura’s “1/4 Samba II” sound detached from the rest of the arrangement; the isolated double bass and drum solos on the lengthy “Acoustic Chicken,” by Koichi Matsukaze Trio featuring Ryojiro Furusawa, just kind of hang around like kids on a street corner. Still, no song feels unworthy, and Higgins and Peden have offered another loving composite of their chosen era. The vinyl release even includes an obi strip, a band of paper typically wrapped around Japanese records, for an extra sense of authenticity. These details solidify another worthy introduction to a nation’s jazz music treasure chest.


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