Jazz icon Akiko Yano finds her electronic muse

by Yung-hsiang Kao

She released her acclaimed debut album 32 years ago at the age of 21, but Akiko Yano still refuses to rest on her laurels. Even with a 27th solo album on the way, the pianist, vocalist, lyricist and composer is still searching for new musical experiences.

Known mainly for her unique, versatile voice on her renditions of jazz and pop tunes, Yano has been collaborating with Kyoto-based electronic artist and producer Rei Harakami (see side bar) for the last four years in a duo called Yanokami. She first encountered Harakami in 2002.

“There’s a Japanese band called Quruli and they have a single arranged by him called ‘Bara no Hana,’ ” Yano says during a brief trip to Tokyo following a Yanokami performance in Singapore. “When I listened to it, I was blown away. So new. Very organic. It was something that I’d never heard of.

“You know, I’ve been in the music business for over 30 years. It’s pretty rare to have an impression like that — to find music that is ‘new’ in its true sense.”

After hearing that track, Yano wanted to work with Harakami, so she got in contact. “I had the chance to talk to him and the next thing I did, I said, ‘Hey, let’s play music together.’ And he couldn’t say no,” she says with a laugh, feigning effusive charm.

The pair worked together on two tracks for Yano’s 2004 album “Honto no Kimochi.” These two tracks, “Night Train Home” and “Too Good to be True,” both appear, as new versions, on Yanokami’s self-titled debut album, released last August. And in March, an English-language version of the album, called “Yanokamick,” was released, featuring two new tracks.

The Yanokami albums consist mainly of Yano’s original works with Harakami’s electronic orchestrations and programming complementing her piano and vocals.

“Originally, we started the Yanokami project with English vocals. The release of the Japanese version, I didn’t intend to do that, but maybe the record company wanted it,” Yano laughs.

Yano says she has no preference for singing in Japanese or English.

“Language itself has a rhythm,” she says. “There is a song (on both albums) called ‘Big Love.’ When I sing it in Japanese, it has a different meaning because Japanese is my native language. The sounds and meaning come together.”

In person, Yano is straightforward yet cheerful, choosing her words carefully but quick to let out a laugh, even about herself.

“I was a kind of ugly duckling,” she says with a big laugh as she recalls her childhood piano studies. Yano has played piano since she was 3, but did not attend a formal music school.

“My teacher was a French nun from Canada. I couldn’t read the charts, I had poor attendance, and I always wanted to play what I wanted to play,” she says, somewhat proudly. “But here I am.”

Her journey from there to here began in 1976, with the release of her debut album, “Japanese Girl.” Nine of the 10 tracks on the album were written by Yano, who was dubbed a “genius” by the Japanese media for her fresh take on jazz-pop in a male- dominated genre. The lead track, “Kikyu ni Notte,” later appeared on “Yanokamick,” renamed “Sayonara.”

She did not play standards and she sang in Japanese, unlike many of her contemporaries. Yano did not sound like anybody before her, her voice blending elements of kabuki, enka, jazz, pop and her own nasal touch.

“I don’t have any specific person I really admired or idolized when I started out,” she says. “Music was my inspiration. ‘Japanese Girl’ was influenced by Japanese traditional music,” such as kayokyoku (Showa Era pop) and minyo (folk songs).

“There’s a tendency to contain everything that you’ve learned” on a debut album, she says. “That record had everything.”

After the success of her debut, Yano played and toured from 1979 till 1980 with Japanese electropop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, where she met Ryuichi Sakamoto, her second ex-husband. She continued making her own albums, but the YMO experience was valuable to her.

“If you had one thing, just one little thing, and you had to grasp it for all your life, it would be impossible to create (music) for this long,” she says.

In 1990, Yano, Sakamoto and their daughter Miu moved to New York, where she still lives.

“I definitely need an environment to encourage me to make music,” she says. “I can live in other places, like Tokyo — I can — but I may not be really comfortable. People will spoil me. Not to blame other people, but it’s kind of hard for me to be isolated. From that point of view, New York is definitely better. It’s good to be an artist in New York.”

Yano has released three albums in the United States, but her fan base is largely in Japan. She comes back almost every year for a weeklong, sold-out stint at Blue Note Tokyo.

“Well, if I were 20 years younger, I would develop my career in America or Europe,” she says. “But I’m already established in Japan. To maintain that requires a lot of time and effort.”

Yano’s influence is not lost on young musicians, such as fellow transplanted New Yorker Hiromi Uehara. The 29-year- old jazz pianist played on Yano’s most recent solo album, 2006′s “Hajimete no Yano Akiko.” When we spoke last August, Uehara cited Yano as an inspiration.

Yano is “very unique; one and only,” Uehara said. “Never heard such singing in my life. If you hear her once, you can’t forget. It doesn’t matter if you like it or you don’t like it, you just can’t forget it. And that’s originality.”

Uehara, who does not sing, hopes to have a long-lasting career like Yano’s. “Her music reflects life and life reflects her music,” Uehara said. “She’s what, in her 50s now? But she’s still creative.”

Yano’s voice has been compared by critics to artists such as idiosyncratic British pop icon Kate Bush, eclectic singer-songwriter Yumi Matsutoya (known for her lavish concerts as Yuming) or eccentric U.S. musician Tori Amos.

“I am kind of honored; they’re all great artists. But if you listen to my music closely, it’s all different,” she says with a laugh. “I always feel I am what I am.”

She admits that her voice does tend to draw attention away from her agile piano skills.

“(My voice is) just given. I can’t change it,” she says, smiling. “I love my voice.”

Aside from her Yanokami project, Yano says she is almost finished with her 27th solo effort, which she describes as “very different” from Yanokami. She does not want to divulge too much information about the album just yet, but says the music is “very private.”

“The album title may be ‘Akiko,’ ” she says, teasingly. “So that says everything, right?”

Though already a successful artist, Yano continues to challenge and reinvent herself. She does this perhaps because her goal in life is a difficult one to attain.

“I just want to make everybody happy,” she says. A tough aspiration, “but it’s worth a try.”

Rei Harakami — Yano’s musical other half

Rei Harakami breaks into a self-effacing laugh during an interview in Tokyo when describing his live performances.

“The audience is always looking confused, wondering what’s going on,” he says. “I’m just playing around with machines, making adjustments.”

The Hiroshima-born, Kyoto-based electronic musician resorts to his easygoing manner in these situations, such as announcing that he prefers the cuisine of Kansai to Kanto because “the water is different.” “I try to make my audience laugh by saying something awkward.”

Harakami released his first album, “Unrest,” in 1998, and his celebrated “Red Curb” in 2001, both of which feature catchy melodies with an ethereal, spacey sonic vibe. But despite production work with the likes of earthy songstress UA and Kyoto rock duo Quruli, it was the musical unit Yanokami — his collaboration with jazz-pop singer-pianist Akiko Yano — that increased his mainstream exposure in Japan, starting with live performances with Yano in 2004. Harakami co-wrote one instrumental track with Yano for Yanokami’s 2007 debut album, and performed on the rest, which were mostly Yano originals. The English-language version of the album, released this March, featured the duo’s first co-written vocal track, “Montauk.”

Harakami would send his parts to Yano in New York from Kyoto, and they would correspond back and forth until they finalized the piece. “I try to arrange the music so that it won’t interfere with her vocalizations.”

Harakami chuckles he would be willing to make another Yanokami album “if people want to listen.” However, when talking about his solo electronic music, Harakami’s laughter gives way to serious thought. His sound is impossible to explain, he says, since there are no spoken words.

“I want to make music that can’t be easily compared to anything,” he says. “I’m trying to make my own style of electronic music.”

Harakami has not yet planned out his next album, “but I really should be doing that,” he says, laughing. “The next album will not be totally different from what I have been making in the past. I intentionally make music so people can immediately recognize that it is my music. I can’t change my style, just like Yano can’t get away from her voice.”

Yano, meanwhile, has high praise for her experience of making music with Harakami.

“I felt so grateful to have this kind of opportunity,” she says. “It really stimulated my artistry. And that’s the basis of this great music.”