Pianist Ai Kuwabara to live out her dream on stage at Tokyo Jazz Festival

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Pianist Ai Kuwabara is waxing nostalgic at the offices of her record label, East Works Entertainment, in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

“I first went to Tokyo Jazz Festival at the International Forum when I was in the fifth or sixth grade of elementary school, and I’ll never forget the impression it made on me.”

“At that time I was playing the electone at the Yamaha Music School and got to perform at some venues around the city,” she recalls. “But I could never get the International Forum out of my head and decided that I just had to play there one day, and I’ve been building toward that ever since.”

What she wasn’t expecting, though, was that this opportunity would come so soon in her career.

This Sunday, the 21-year-old Kuwabara will perform on the very stage that amazed her as a child, and she’ll be sharing the bill with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea’s all-star band The Vigil.

“Everyone was surprised,” she says of the gig. “But I think I was the most surprised of all. Back in April, (my manager) called me — which I thought was strange anyway, because usually we do everything by email — and told me about the offer. At first I couldn’t get my head round it, and it’s only now that the reality is starting to sink in.”

It’s difficult for Kuwabara to pin down exactly when the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project began, but she says it was something that grew out of a musical partnership with her bassist, Yusuke Morita.

“I have two older sisters, both of whom are musicians and composers.” she says. “My second-eldest sister went to the Tokyo College of Music and was classmates with Morita. She introduced him to me and things basically started from there. We soon discovered that we were into similar music and had other goals in common, too. We thought that if we performed together it could develop into something exciting and interesting.

“We decided that we needed to try various things out. We originally planned to choose a drummer to complete the trio, but then there was the earthquake of March 11, 2011, and that, along with other things, changed the situation slightly. Our focus shifted from finalizing musicians to working on the music itself and booking drummers for sessions in order to find the right feeling.

“From there we eventually came to the conclusion that rather than being a trio, the term Trio Project would be a better name for what Morita and I were doing.”

The Ai Kuwabara Trio Project’s debut album, “From Here to There,” was released last year, initially as a self-produced effort and later through East Works Entertainment. It was successful enough to warrant a followup, which came in spring. “The Sixth Sense” has been received well by critics (indeed, back in July I named it my favorite album of 2013 so far) and Kuwabara thinks this is in part because it is something of a concept album based on her interest in psychology.

“The first album was, without wanting to put it down, something of an à la carte affair to introduce my music and the project,” she says. “In high school I thought about going to university, so I studied psychology and cognitive science for the entrance exams. I found it a really fascinating area and decided that I wanted to transfer this inspiration into music.

“A few times I’ve been asked whether I’ve used my sixth sense to create this music. But it wasn’t about that, the album was more of a desire to make some music that reflected the world of the sixth sense and intuition.”

Kuwabara cites pianists Michel Petrucciani and Chick Corea among her influences, as well as bassist Anthony Jackson and the Esbjorn Svensson Trio (better known as E.S.T.). However, Kuwabara doesn’t necessarily see herself as an out and out jazz musician.

“I don’t feel that I’m consciously playing jazz as such,” she says. “Without wanting to be disrespectful to the tradition of the genre, that’s not really what I’m aiming for, but that’s just how my music gets categorized.

“Some fans have told me that they usually only listen to rock, but they’re really into what I’m doing. I guess there’s a rock, even progressive-rock, feel to some of my tracks, but when it comes to improvisation the band and I often slip back into a bebop mode.”

The Ai Kuwabara Trio Project’s set at Tokyo Jazz Festival will be made up of a few tunes from its first two albums, as well as a couple of covers. The three-piece will also be premiering a new track in what Kuwabara hopes will be a set that captures the best of what she’s done so far.

And when that’s done?

“Obviously, it would be a pity if this appearance at Tokyo Jazz Festival is the pinnacle of my achievements,” she says with a laugh. “So I have to keep working hard and pushing on to the next goal. To be honest, there are so many things I want to do, it’s difficult to pick any one thing in particular.

“On a personal level, though, I definitely want to travel and see the world. I want to see loads of different places and soak up new environments.

“I went on a trip to Europe recently, taking in Paris, Berlin and Bern. It was really great and had a big impact on me, so I’m sure that traveling will have an influence on my songwriting.”

With plans for some live dates in the United States in November and a third album slated for release next spring, perhaps the Trio Project would be better off called a Trip Project. However, first things first, and that destination is Tokyo International Forum.

Tokyo Jazz Festival takes place at the Tokyo International Forum and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, on Sept. 6, 7 and 8. Performance times and ticket prices vary. The Ai Kuwabara Trio Project plays the forum’s Hall A on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com or www.aikuwabaratrio.com.