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Getting keyed in on musical talent

by Steve McClure

I don’t like the phrase “child prodigy.” It sounds vaguely condescending, and it brings to mind images of pushy parents forcing reluctant children to follow in the footsteps of Beethoven, Mozart and Michael Jackson.

But that term is entirely appropriate in describing one of Japan’s most promising musicians, jazz pianist Takashi Matsunaga. Although he’s just 16, Matsunaga is a very hot and assured player. I was lucky enough to see him play a couple of numbers at Toshiba-EMI’s semiannual “Music Talks” sales presentation, where he blew the audience away with his powerful hard-bop style.

Matsunaga was joined on stage by female jazz violinist Naoko Terai, another excellent player signed to Toshiba-EMI. She is very much in the Stephane Grappelli tradition of swingin’ jazz violin, playing with a verve and an obvious sense of enjoyment.

Billed as “the youngest pro jazz pianist in Japan,” Matsunaga is a Kobe native who began playing piano and organ at age 5. At 10, he won the grand prize in a nationwide electric-organ competition, after which he became the pupil of Tadao Kitano, who previously taught renowned jazz pianist Makoto Ozone.

Matsunaga gave his first public performance when he was 15, and attracted widespread attention with his performance on the TV show “Anyone Can Be Picasso” earlier this year. Under his recording contract with Toshiba-EMI, his debut album will be released next year.

Although he plays with the confidence and command of an adult, Matsunaga’s remarks to the audience were delivered rather high-pitched, betraying his age.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Rainbow Bridge,” he said in his boyish voice, instantly winning the hearts of the audience.

Takashi Matsunaga will be performing at the Ginza Yamaha Hall on Nov. 8. For tickets and further information, call the Nihon Ongakuka Kyokai at (03) 3585-3903.

Another highlight of the “Music Talks” event was seeing five of Japan’s top New Age musicians performing together. Billed as the “New Age All Stars,” the one-time ensemble comprised Hideki Togi, who has a made a career of updating gagaku (ancient court music); popular young shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma; Kotaro Oshio, an acoustic guitarist in the Michael Hedges percussive tradition; Chen Min, who plays the plaintive two-stringed, bowed erhu of China; and Wu Fang, who plays the zheng, the 20-stringed ancestor of Japan’s koto.

It was inspiring to see Japanese and Chinese musicians playing together, showing that East Asia’s rich musical traditions are being kept alive by young and talented musicians.

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The good people at Tower Records Japan, not to mention loyal Tower customers such as your humble scribe, can breathe easier now that the sale of the chain to Nikko Principal Investments Japan has been finalized after several postponements.

Tower Japan’s American parent company, MTS, decided to sell its 53-store Japanese operation late last year after being caught in a credit crunch. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, since the consistently profitable Tower Japan was the jewel in the crown of MTS’ worldwide operations.

The good news is that nothing will really change at Tower Japan. The current management, headed by Keith Cahoon, will remain in place and Tower will continue to do what it does best: stock a well-chosen mixture of new releases and older catalog material, as well as hire staff who actually know something about music.

Over the next three years, Tower Japan plans to expand the chain to 70 outlets.

Said Cahoon: “Our new situation in Japan gives us a greater degree of freedom, more focus and stronger financing. While we intend to carry forward the core values on which Russ Solomon founded Tower Records, we look forward to operating as an independent company.”

The folks at Nikko are apparently firm believers in the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it philosophy, which augurs well for Tower Japan’s future. If a rival chain or less-visionary company had bought out the chain, it could have been a very different story.