Jazz is a genre in its own right in Japan and last weekend, Phnom Penhers were treated to an evening of Japanese jazz in Bouchon Wine Bar. Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan was there, imbibing the smooth flow.
My favourite Japanese author is Haruki Murakami and his passion, besides running, is jazz – which he weaves into his amazing fiction. Murakami underwent a personal transformation in his 30s when he sold his Tokyo jazz bar – Peter Cat – but he could not put his music behind him and continued to write a collection of jazz essays like ‘Portrait in Jazz’ and ‘Portrait in Jazz 2’.
Japan was first exposed to jazz in the 1920s, as it spread on an international scale after World War I. With the rise of consumerism after World War 1, this American art form had a wide market and the music in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s became uniquely intertwined with Japanese cultural identity.
After World War II, the relationship between Japan and the United States altered significantly with the occupation in 1940s by the US-allied forces led by General Douglas MacArthur. Japan’s cultural identity had been greatly been altered and the occupation impacted all aspects of Japanese life. Jazz – which many Japanese felt was music from America – now was interpreted differently. For some, it was the sound of liberation and modernity, while others used it to express their resentment of the US occupation.
Today, jazz is a genre in its own right in Japan, having freed itself from the harsh connotations from the US occupation after World War II. This very much has to do with flourishing of various jazz schools that have been founded since the late 1960s.
Last weekend in Phnom Penh, three Japanese jazz musicians showcased their interpretations of jazz standards – taking on jazz as their own genre and seeking to play what jazz means to the Japanese.
In Bouchon Wine Bar, Ken Kawamura, on keyboards, and Jose Terada, on soprano sax, were joined by jazz guitarist Takeshi Yamauchi in a delightful collaboration. Local jazz diva, Mari Yamauchi, gave a cameo performance with her rendition of the bossa nova hit ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ – composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and made popular in 1964 by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz. Terada played the soprano sax with exceptional grace that only comes with exceptional technique. Kawamura is a virtuoso keyboardist/pianist and also showed off his flair with what has been described as an unusual accordina instrument.
While Kawamura and Terada are visiting musicians, Takeshi Yamauchi is no stranger to the Phnom Penh jazz scene. Takeshi’s fluid guitar-playing style is similar to George Benson – the master soloist, who is also considered as one of the best improvisers of his generation.
Colin Grafton was the only non-Japanese to jam with Kawamura, Terada and Takeshi Yamauchi. Grafton, too, is no stranger to the Japanese jazz and blues scene – having spent a significant length of time in Tokyo, as a musician, playing his harmonica and blues harp. In the quintessential George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, Grafton’s notes on the harmonica alternates between the familiar and the exploratory, moving through several improvised areas – supported by Kawamura, Terada and Yamauchi in random call and response sequences – and finally coming together for an excellent collective improvisation.
“I had my first encounter with jazz in 1964 when I was 15,” author Murakami writes in the New York Times.
“The first time I listened to jazz, it bowled me over. I was thunderstruck. Something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.”
The beauty about Japanese jazz is that the music stays fluid and conforms to no fixed shape and no fixed conversations.
As Murakami puts it: “If the Dalai Lama were on his deathbed and the jazz musician Eric Dolphy were to try to explain to him the importance of choosing one’s engine oil in accordance with changes in the sound of the bass clarinet, that exchange might have been more worthwhile and effective than my conversations with Noboru Wataya [the main character in Murakami’s ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicle’]”.