Pinning an exact birth date on any genre is a tricky business, but 2017 has been deemed the 100th anniversary of jazz, in recognition of the first recordings released back in 1917. A century after the earliest jazz, “jass” and “jazbo” groups entered the studios, though, where does the music stand today?
Damien Chazelle’s hit musical “La La Land” depicted jazz as an art form on the verge of extinction, but the reality is much rosier. The recent successes of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington — as well as albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and David Bowie’s “Blackstar” — have brought a defiantly modern version of the music to audiences that would never think of stepping inside the Blue Note.
In Japan, meanwhile, a generation of younger musicians is reinvigorating jazz and its institutions here.
Some of the scene’s brightest talents will be appearing Wednesday at Tokyo’s Club Quattro for the first edition of a new event, Tokyo Lab, organized by fashion company Canalize and music website Mikiki.
Guitarist May Inoue and drummer Shun Ishiwaka, both still in their mid-20s, are set to play with their own bands, alongside groups led by trumpeter Shinpei Ruike and bassist Takumi Moriya, with support from DJ Hiroko Otsuka. At the end of the night, the assembled musicians will team up in an all-star group led by Keiichi Tomita, the jazz-savvy producer better known as Tomita Lab.
Canalize’s Hirotsugu Shibata, one of the event’s organizers, has dubbed this supergroup the T.O.C. Band, short for Tokyo Olympic Ceremony.
“It may seem like a wild fantasy, but my ambition for this project is to create a band that can play at the Tokyo Olympics,” he says.
He may be setting his sights a little high there, but the event promises to provide a snapshot of a scene in vigorous health.
“There are a lot of young musicians who are really good,” confirms Ruike, who at 41 is a relative veteran of the Japanese jazz world. “The key thing from now on is probably going to be how they’re presented. I think it’s really important to create a kind of star.”
He’s thinking of a figure like Glasper, whose 2012 album “Black Radio” transformed the vernacular of modern jazz. Critics now talk about “post-Glasper” as a distinct idiom, in which jazz has internalized the rhythmic influences of hip-hop and R&B, aided by a new breed of drummers who can play with a precision hitherto reserved for programmed electronic beats.
Ishiwaka is one of them. The 24-year-old is a former child prodigy who chose his instrument after watching free-jazz legend Takeo Moriyama at the age of 4. A graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts, he combines virtuoso technique with a wide-ranging output that has earned him comparisons to Steve Gadd, the ultimate drummer’s drummer. His current gigs include playing with famed trumpeter Terumasa Hino, whose band he joined at the tender age of 21.
Ishiwaka says that Tokyo jazz musicians no longer spend their time pining for the New York scene: “I think we’re at a point now where people overseas are looking to Japan instead and saying, ‘Wow, these guys are good.'”
Inoue echoes the sentiment. Online culture has leveled the field for jazz musicians, wherever they are.
“It’s the YouTube era, so the world’s becoming flatter,” he says.
The guitarist was scouted when he was still at high school, and made his major label debut when he was just 20 years old. Now 26, he releases his third album — and first with new band May Inoue Stereo Champ — on the same day as Tokyo Lab.
Joining the dots between the performers at the event shows how tightly intertwined the scene is. Ishiwaka will be playing with his own Cleanup Trio, as well as sitting in with Stereo Champ, which counts Ruike as a regular member. Ruike and Ishiwaka have also played with Moriya as part of RM Jazz Legacy, a club-oriented supergroup produced by Otsuka.
Speaking of Otsuka, the DJ’s “Piece The Next” compilation series offers a handy introduction to the vanguard of Japanese jazz. Other key reference points include the Jazz Summit Tokyo events, which showcase musicians born in the 1990s, and the magazine “Jazz The New Chapter,” the de facto bible for the “post-Glasper” crowd.
Launched in 2014 with the memorable pledge “not to prostrate itself before the history of 20th-century jazz,” the magazine has enthusiastically chronicled recent developments overseas. (“Everyone’s been reading it: the pop and rock musicians too, not just jazz people,” says Ishiwaka.)
Its editor, Mikiki’s Toshiya Oguma, is another of the organizers behind Tokyo Lab. Originally a rock critic, he says he found a vitality in the new wave of jazz that had been lacking in indie rock.
“It’s the same sense of excitement people must have felt experiencing something like the ’80s post-punk era in real-time,” he says.
Oguma notes a Glasper influence in recent work by distinctly nonjazz bands like Cero and Bonobos, and points to a flurry of cross-pollination between jazz and other genres, mentioning artists such as Manabua, Kan Sano, Yoshida Yohei Group, Tamtam and Mononkul.
Another example is the quintet CRCK/LCKS, which counts Ishiwaka and Inoue as members, and injects a generous dose of jazz dexterity into conventional singer-songwriter pop.
After a decade of playing in jazz clubs, Inoue says that performing with CRCK/LCKS in rock venues — and to younger crowds — has been an enlightening experience. The latest crop of Japanese jazz musicians can still count on an established audience of older listeners who have been frequenting the circuit for decades, but he says he’s aware that this won’t last forever.
“A lot of the jazz club owners are getting on in years,” he says. “Half of them will probably be gone in a decade’s time. That’s why we have to cultivate new spots.”
Ruike points out that the format of an event like Tokyo Lab, with multiple bands playing on a single bill, is something jazz clubs should consider doing more often.
“It means the audience can hear more kinds of music, but it also means you get more exchange between the musicians,” he says.
Ishiwaka and Inoue say some of the scene’s other established practices could do with a rethink, too.
“One of the bad things about the Japanese jazz scene is the whole ‘gig’ mentality, where you get together on the day, hand out chord charts and say, ‘Right, let’s play,'” says Ishikawa. “But that’s not a band.”
“When you’re meeting people for the first time 20 minutes before you play, it’s a lot of fun as a jazz musician, but it makes it harder to convince anyone else that the show will be worth their time,” concurs Inoue. He thinks that offering a more crafted and consistent experience is the “easiest route” to winning over younger audiences who aren’t already committed jazz fans.
For all their innovation, they’re mindful that they still have a tradition to continue.
“Jazz has been around for 100 years now, and I feel like I’m part of that history when I’m playing in 2017,” says Ishiwaka. “I’m conscious that it’s my job to take that history forward.”
Tokyo Lab takes place at Club Quattro in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on June 21 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,500 in advance). May Inoue Stereo Champ’s self-titled debut will be released the same day. The band is scheduled to appear on NHK FM’s “Session 2017” on July 23.
Wondering where to start when it comes to new jazz acts in Japan? Check out these three albums:
Takuya Kuroda — “Zigzagger”
New York-based trumpeter Kuroda melds jazz-funk with hip-hop and Afrobeat on the follow-up to his Blue Note-released 2014 breakout album, “Rising Son.”
Wonk — “Sphere”
The self-styled “experimental soul band” flaunts the influences of Robert Glasper and Hiatus Kaiyote on its much buzzed-about debut album.
Hiroko Otsuka — “Piece The Next Japan Breeze”
Crossovers and cross-border collaborations are the order of the day in the latest installment of Otsuka’s compilation series, a handy primer for newcomers to Japan’s new jazz scene.