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Newbies to Japanese jazz get a soundtrack to a primer

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

For a music fan wanting to explore jazz for the first time, an ideal starting point may be the current chart-toppers, which includes Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and Jose James. Alternatively, he or she may choose to start with the classics, diving into the extensive back catalogs of the Blue Note or Impulse labels.

When it comes to Japanese jazz, a look at the charts may give some clues as to who the big artists are, but for a newbie wanting to explore the classics it can be difficult to gauge where to start. There’s a tiny amount of information available on this country’s scene in any language other than Japanese, which is a pity given the rich heritage of the genre here.

While jazz became popular in Japan in the 1920s and ’30s, the real boom in homegrown artists started in the ’50s, marking the start of a golden age of recorded music in which Japanese musicians both mirrored the trends in American jazz and created a distinct sound through the music they composed or via the incorporation of Japanese instruments. Despite the limited availability of many of these recordings outside Japan, the jazz scene here quickly earned a reputation as a hotbed of creativity.

Back in 2009, a book titled “Wa Jazz Disc Guide: Japanese Jazz 1950s-1980s” by Koki Hanawa and Yusuke Ogawa looked at 400 titles released over that four-decade period. Although the short review that accompanies each entry is in Japanese, the inclusion of artwork, album-release details and track listings in both Japanese and English means this book is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to find out more about some of the seminal albums in Japan’s jazz history.

The task was made a little easier recently with the release of an accompanying audio compilation titled (appropriately), “Listen To Wa Jazz Disc Guide: Japanese Jazz 1950s-1980s.” The album is curated by Hanawa and Ogawa, who delve into the archives of the Nippon Columbia label to select a dozen tunes encompassing a range of styles from big band and hard bop to jazz-funk and jazz-rock.

On the compilation are three essential tunes to the aspiring jazz aficionado: “Like Miles” by trumpeter Terumasa Hino, which comes from his classic 1969 electric jazz album “Hi-Nology”; “Babylonia Wind,” the spiritual title track from the 1971 album by guitarist Kiyoshi Sugimoto; and the hard bop of “The March” by Toshiko Akiyoshi from her 1965 release “Lullabies For You.” These tracks alone justify the cost of the album.

The diversity of this trio, however, illustrates the difficulty of capturing the essence of Japanese jazz over 40 years on a mere 12-track album, especially when you take into account the seismic shift that took place in jazz here during the latter half of the ’60s. With American jazz musicians exploring freer, more improvisational territory as well as other musical influences during this period, their counterparts in other parts of the world felt the freedom to do the same, resulting in a variety of new sounds. The Japanese scene at this time was particularly fertile, so it’s perhaps of little surprise that eight of the 12 tracks on the album were originally released between 1968 and 1972. This unfortunately leaves less room for earlier or later recordings, and the running order throws up only two dramatic shifts in style.

Most of the tracks on “Listen To Wa Jazz Disc Guide: Japanese Jazz 1950s-1980s” are from albums that are highly sought after by DJs and record collectors the world over (with some going for very high prices). A lot of the albums either haven’t been reissued, or have only reappeared as limited editions. So for any jazz fans who have neither the time or budget to track down the originals, this compilation is a great shortcut as well as an opportunity for beginners to dip into the rich sounds of this country’s past.