Defining kayōkyoku is like trying to nail down konnyaku.
“Japanese standard songs” is veteran vocalist Saori Yuki’s first stab at describing a musical genre that’s easily recognizable but hard to construe.
“Jazz-inspired Japanese pop songs for adults,” she then ventures. Warming to her subject, Yuki explains that the kayōkyoku tradition dates back to the immediate postwar era, when Japanese songwriters such as Ryoichi Hattori absorbed Western musical styles and suffused them with Japanese taste to create a new genre.
“Kayōkyoku was like foreign food with a Japanese style,” she says. “It’s got a little swing, a jazzy blues rhythm, with Japanese lyrics.” Yuki notes that kayōkyoku isn’t the same thing as enka, which is more firmly rooted in Japanese musical genres such as naniwabushi (traditional narrative singing) and minyō (folk) songs. Neither is it J-pop, she points out.
The best way to get a handle on kayōkyoku is, of course, to hear it. And an excellent introduction is “1969,” the recently released album on which Yuki is backed by Portland, Oregon-based retro-pop band Pink Martini. The album features several superlative covers of kayōkyoku classics as well as Western pop standards. All the songs on the album were hits in Japan in 1969, including “Yoake no Scat,” which was Yuki’s debut single in that year.
In less skilled hands, a project like “1969″ could have easily devolved into kitsch. But the love and respect Yuki and Pink Martini have for the pop tradition shines through on every track. To take one example, they perform the much-covered tune “Puff the Magic Dragon” with a restrained sense of melancholy that avoids the trap of saccharine overkill.
The album’s opening song, the samba-esque “Blue Light Yokohama,” conjures up images of ’60s night clubs and romantic intrigue in the port city. Yuki invests the tune with just the right amount of emotion — achingly longing, but not over the top like enka. As Yuki notes: “Kayōkyoku is a little ‘drier’ — it’s not as ‘wet’ as enka.”
These days Yuki is best known as an interpreter of dōyō children’s songs, which she has been performing for the past 25 years as a duo with her sister, Sachiko Yasuda. Yuki’s return to her kayōkyoku roots on “1969″ came about thanks to Pink Martini leader Thomas Lauderdale’s serendipitous discovery of her debut album in a Portland used-record store. Impressed by what he heard, Lauderdale and Pink Martini recorded her song “Taya Tan” for their 2007 album “Hey Eugene!”
Yuki and her management became aware of Pink Martini’s cover of “Taya Tan” via YouTube. When the band toured Japan for the first time in 2010, Yuki joined Pink Martini singer China Forbes on stage to sing “Taya Tan” together. Later that year Yuki was invited to sing the first-ever Japanese version of “White Christmas” for Pink Martini’s holiday album “Joy to The World.”
The Yuki-Pink Martini connection further developed when the singer performed at a benefit concert in Portland for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. She also recorded a version of kayōkyoku classic “Yuuzuki” with the band for a Starbucks-sponsored benefit single on iTunes.
While Yuki was in Portland, Lauderdale came up with the idea for the “1969″ project, to which the Japanese singer readily agreed.
“Thomas is like a curator or archeologist. He referred to me as a ‘museum piece’ in a recent BBC interview,” she says with a laugh. “But that’s not wrong. After all, he was born after I made my debut.”
After sifting through dozens of songs, Yuki and Pink Martini settled on 12 tunes and recorded them in a matter of days. “1969″ was released by EMI Japan on Oct. 12 as well as by EMI affiliates in 22 other territories. In North America, the album is being released on Pink Martini’s Heinz Records label.
On Oct. 17, Yuki sang five songs with Pink Martini and the BBC Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Although she’s performed many dōyō concerts overseas for expatriate Japanese, this was her international kayōkyoku debut.
Asked whether she had stage fright, Yuki exclaims, “Sugoi nervous! But Thomas was so nice. When he introduced me, he called me Japan’s Barbra Streisand. But the music critics didn’t agree with that description, saying I was more sophisticated.”
One critic impressed by Yuki’s performance was The Guardian’s Robin Denselow, who wrote: “She is a bravely versatile performer, switching from the swinging “Blue Light Yokohama” to the Brazilian standard “Mas Que Nada.” She deserved far more than five songs.”
Yuki will be performing jazz standards at Tokyo’s Cerulean Hotel next month. Then she’s off to the United States again to be a guest vocalist with Pink Martini for four shows starting with a gig in Washington, D.C.
“It’s time for kayōkyoku to take its place with other genres of music like canzone, chanson and pops,” she says confidently. “After 40 years, it’s time for a new challenge. It’s my second debut.”
“1969″ is on sale now. Saori Yuki plays the JZ Brat Club in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 6 (7:30 p.m.; ¥12,000, including dinner). For more information, visit www.jzbrat.com, www. ameblo.jp/saori-yuki, or www.pinkmartini.com.