One of the highlights of my Golden Week this year was a concert by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra at Blue Note in Tokyo. Reuniting her big band for the first time in a decade, Akiyoshi rolled back the clock with a superb set and some witty banter. The high point of the Sunday night show was “Kogun,” with her husband, Tabackin, delivering a superb performance on flute.
Akiyoshi was a trailblazer — literally. She become the first Japanese musician to be accepted to study jazz in the United States, and has received numerous accolades since. Seeing her perform, with such a command of the stage, I wondered why the government’s Cool Japan campaign doesn’t tout her achievements more often.
In fact, over the last decade a number of female jazz artists have emerged here, each with their own distinctive sound and musical vision, and all of them a far cry from the saccharine-sweet cuteness of AKB48, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the rest of the Cool Japan-approved pop world.
Pianist Hiromi Uehara, who records simply under the name Hiromi, has probably achieved the greatest level of international success of any of the latest generation of Japanese jazz musicians. Her debut album, “Another Mind” in 2003, was a massive hit. She has since released another seven albums, each a critical and commercial success, with her reputation further enhanced by virtuosic and charismatic live shows where it’s practically impossible not to be carried away by both her sheer talent on the keys and infectious energy levels.
Manami Morita, another pianist, found instant critical success both in Japan and the U.S. with her 2009 debut, “Colors.” Her 2011 composition “I Am” will be familiar even to those who don’t listen to jazz as it’s used as the theme tune for TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” news program. Starting out recording as a piano trio, her most recent album, “When Skies Are Gray,” sees her working with more musicians and expanding her range. She displays a clear desire to experiment rather than just stick with what’s worked before, incorporating a string quartet on a couple of tunes and a version of “You Are My Sunshine” with both howling feedback shifting into 1930s-style ragtime that jars the senses and defies logic, it’s akin to watching a David Lynch film. Like both Akiyoshi and Uehara before her, Morita is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston and spends most of her time in the U.S.
Last year saw the debut release from the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project, titled, “From Here To There.” Originally released as a fully self-produced project, a buzz built around the album and it was soon snapped up and re-issued by East Works Entertainment. With a sound influenced by Michel Petrucciani and E.S.T., the 21-year-old’s tunes are characterized by strong melodies, a flurry of notes and some rock influences mixed in with the jazz. She has quickly followed up her debut with “The Sixth Sense,” a concept album based around a central theme of intuition. Whereas the debut featured songs recorded over three sessions using three different drummers, “The Sixth Sense” features the same trio throughout and this, together with a central theme that runs through the album, gives the whole set a more unified and self-assured feel. The album is clearly the sign of an artist with great vision whose star is in the ascendant.
This trio of pianists play in a contemporary style, but at the same time there is still a big market in Japan for straight-ahead jazz. Trumpeter Hikari Ichihara started out playing a hybrid of jazz and AOR, but has subsequently established herself as an accomplished hard-bop player. Earlier this year she played her first overseas concerts, with a couple of gigs in Italy, and more opportunities surely beckon for this popular musician.
Alto saxophone player Erena Terakubo is only 20 years old, but caught the attention of jazz legends such as sax player Sadao Watanabe and bassist Eddie Gomez when she was in her teens. The Sapporo-born musician already has a couple of albums under her belt, with the second, her 2012 release, “New York Attitude,” recorded with legends such as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter, introducing her to the U.S. market.
Terakubo seems set to emulate the success of another alto player, Saori Yano, who recorded her debut a decade ago at the age of 16. Unlike many other jazz musicians, Yano has not had a formal education in jazz, but has instead learned her craft through extensive gigging and advice from some of the greats she has played with.
The success and acclaim that these artists have achieved both in Japan and overseas will undoubtedly act as an inspiration for the next generation of musicians. Perhaps the government would be wise to remember that the slang term “cool” was born in the jazz world, and figure these women into its campaign to promote Japanese culture abroad.