Freedom at his fingertips


Yosuke Yamashita is one of the rare Japanese jazz musicians who is a household name in his native land. Despite his uncompromisingly avant-garde style, he is also one of the few to establish himself as a well-respected jazz pianist in Europe and the United States.

After riding the crest of the 1970s’ free jazz movement, Yamashita has performed all over the world, releasing nearly 50 recordings and playing on countless others. Not content with Tokyo, he went to New York in the ’80s and quickly became recognized for his powerful keyboard attack and innovative musical ideas.

Since then, he has toured and recorded in Europe, the United States and Japan, and shows no signs of letting up.

Yamashita’s playing style is highly distinctive. At times, he plays the piano like a percussion instrument — banging the keys with his forearms and hammering out fistfuls of passionate noise. In addition to free jazz, Yamashita — who often plays with musicians who were not even born when he first gained attention — is one of the few jazz musicians to incorporate Japanese elements into his music, with a deep feeling for improvising while respecting the original forms.

From the release of 1990’s “Sakura,” a wonderful modern jazz take on traditional Japanese melodies, to this year’s “Ken-Kon” DVD with taiko drum master Eitetsu Hayashi, the blending of cross-cultural elements has been an important theme in his work.

If he is proud of all this, it doesn’t show. Dressed in his trademark white shirt and brightly colored vest, Yamashita has a disarmingly humble manner. He was happy to chat away after sinking into the chair of a coffee shop in Shibuya’s Cerulean Tower complex, downstairs from jazz club JZ Brat, where he would be performing that evening with a group of twentysomething musicians.

During our interview, Yamashita’s puckish laughter and the mischievous way he delivers anecdotes are in striking contrast to his maestro-like status.

You often mix elements of traditional Japanese music into your jazz. Why is that?

In the free-jazz era, I was deeply into free jazz and only free jazz. I had a Japanese group then, but after it broke up I went to New York on my own. I wanted to try something new and create a new identity for myself. I was a newcomer and strongly felt the power and history of jazz there. So, I wondered how, as a Japanese, I could participate in the history of jazz. Even though I was very much a devoted free-jazz player, I wanted to try something new. Of course, I also wanted to do something from myself. I knew all these Japanese melodies, so with my New York trio, I made “sakura-style” jazz with Japanese melodies.

So, once you were in New York, you thought of home?

Yes, but I wondered how I could express that in jazz. I started to think of Japanese instruments, such as the shakuhachi and shamisen, and to think of how they might translate to jazz. I was working with a piano, bass and drums trio, but wanted to put Japanese feeling into that format. Jazz is an American music, but I’m not a Japanese who wants to become an American. I always feel like a Japanese.

The “Ken-Kon” duos with taiko drummer Eitetsu Hayashi certainly reveals that.

The nice thing about that recording is the hint of what wonderful things might be. I started to have faith in being able to make my own kind of music that isn’t exactly jazz form. The improvisation is still from jazz, of course. What I’d like to do now is to have a full orchestra of Japanese classical musicians, especially wadaiko drummers with their tremendous musical ability, who are able to improvise like a jazz orchestra.

I am always aiming for what I am not quite sure I can do. It’s a challenge, but something I want to try.

You almost never play with the same group, switching from a chamber-jazz group to young boppers to your free-jazz trios and now the wadaiko drummers. Is that to constantly give yourself a challenge?

That’s right. However, for many years, I have had almost the same Japanese trio, and since 1988 I’ve had the same New York trio, which has released one recording a year. The trios form my jazz core. I feel secure with those trios at this point. If I just had the jazz trio, that would be enough for me. Still, I always want to do something more unusual, or something that I just feel like doing.

Does that feeling of needing a challenge come from your free-jazz roots?

Exactly. That’s the very idea of free jazz, to always change the music and consider the composition as less important than the playing itself. I’ve come to feel that more and more strongly.

How did you start your New York trio (with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan akLaff?

It was hard to find the right people. There were lots of difficult things. I had to rely on the players’ energy. But finally it went well with them. That’s been almost 15 years together this year, so I’m really happy. More and more, we understand each other better and better, so I’m really pleased. We have a relationship of trust so we can answer each other easily, and there’s a lot of depth there. They let me know when my playing becomes too simple or ridiculous.

I go to New York every May, as we have agreed to record once a year. So, I’m always thinking ahead about what I’m going to do, or not do, this year. It’s always the feeling of it being great — here we are again.

When we get together, I’m always waiting for their reactions. That’s just how it was with them from the very beginning, the first time we played at Sweet Basil’s in New York, the customers were impressed, and I was surprised it went so well. I was thrilled, of course, because that was my real start.

So, did you live in New York for a long time?

No, I never lived there. I only went there to record and perform. Before that, in 1985, I traveled alone around America. I traveled from New Orleans to New York, stopping in St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City — all the cities famous in jazz history.

Every place, I pounced on the chance to play something. In Kansas City, at the Musicians Mutual Association, set up to honor Charlie Parker, I had a great jam session. In Storyville in New Orleans [the famed bordello district where jazz originated], I played in a club. There was a great jam session in Chicago and St. Louis, too. At last, I made it to New York and played solo piano there.

You’ve also performed in Europe. In what ways do you find European and American audiences are different?

Europe is much like Japan. They readily recognize American jazz as an art form, more than American audiences do maybe. In America, since New York is really the home of jazz, there is always a lot of pressure. When I first played at Sweet Basil’s, three blocks away Jackie McLean was playing and Art Blakey was there, too. That was really difficult, but that’s New York.

In Japan, free jazz has always had a mixed reception.

It’s about the same as in Europe and America. There are people who love free jazz and some who hate it, and plenty of others who only want to hear standards. In Japan, when I play free jazz, it’s almost always OK for most people. In the ’70s, there were also people who played free, but it was always very intense.

As for me, now, when I play a free-jazz number that’s really wild, I follow it up with a ballad. I try to get a balance. The time when I would exclusively play free jazz through the whole set is over for me. However, I’m also clumped into free jazz, so I always naturally play something of that sort and improvise in that way. But, instead of just staying inside that one style, I want to use free jazz to convey what I want to express.

You have also written several different books.

My books are mostly light humor. I wrote about other musicians’ stories and things that happened to me, almost like a tour diary. I only wrote about strange and unusual things, and never anything serious. I also included things about my family ancestry. My mother played the piano, and she encouraged me, but that was about it for music roots.

Actually, my grandfather built a prison in Akita in the Meiji Era [1868-1912]. It was a magnificent piece of architecture, made of stone and brick. When I found that out, I was completely surprised. Why would he build that? He was a well-off samurai in Kagoshima on Kyushu prior to the Meiji Restoration. With the revolution, when the shogunate was overthrown, the government needed prisons. That was fascinating, so I wrote about it. I don’t think it’s had any connection to my music, though. However, since I’m not an essay writer, I wasn’t really sure if I could write interesting essays. I worried about writing them.

You have also written about teaching jazz, as you always mentor younger musicians.

In fact, yes, I have written one book about jazz. Also, I did a series of lessons about music on television. As a guest professor, I teach a class in jazz at Senzoku Gakuin University. The trio I’m playing with tonight graduated from there. I only really teach several times over the school year. I give lectures, but also sit down to play and invite guests to play together with me. It’s interesting, though, because the young people now all ask me to play free jazz. It’s surprising because the younger generation almost all listen to rock from the very beginning. They start with rock, then hear fusion, then somehow hear saxophone improvisation, wonder what it is, and finally move over to jazz. Rock is everywhere, but the roots of rock and pop go back to jazz. Most of the top rock players are really interested in jazz.

Did you listen to classical music when you were young?

When I first started to learn, it was all by ear. As soon as I could play the piano, I learned it just by listening. My teachers tried to get me to read, but I didn’t like it. Even when I was beginning, when my mother was teaching me, she kept telling that what I was playing was written there. I kept telling her I didn’t need to read, because I could play it by ear.

After high school, my parents forced me to go to university, even though I wanted to become a professional musician. I told my parents I wanted to study music, but they refused. After negotiating, we settled on music college. My fingers were not really trained enough to go into performance in classical, so I thought I would go into composition. I thought composition would be good training for improvisation. So, I learned to read and started to study composition and many styles of classical European music.

But were you still playing jazz at the same time?

Right, half of my life was jazz and half was classical. When I told my teachers that I was a jazz pianist at the interview for college, they said, “People like you who play jazz never finish the full four years. Maybe you’ll quit in one year.” I promised them I would finish and begged them to let me in. They did, even though I wasn’t really sure I would finish. Anyway, they let me in. Already at that time I was semi-professional.

Soon after I entered the music college, I was called by Sadao Watanabe for a session. In Japanese, we say, “wearing two kinds of shoes” — one shoe was jazz and one shoe was school. My teachers were really good, and very open-minded. They didn’t push any trivial things, but insisted I write one piece of music for every seminar. There was classical piano performance for the regular year-end examinations, but the teachers were just laughing when I played. Anyway, I passed.

You’ve done everything and played everywhere, so what’s next? Is there any place you haven’t played?

Antarctica. For this 15-year anniversary of the New York trio, I wanted to do something special. The CD to be released in October is again kind of very Japanese taste. It’s the first time I’ve played together with a kabuki player. There’s a flute, the kind for noh theater, and a percussionist, from a famous kabuki family. I let these people meet the New York guys [McBee and akLaff]. It was hard to arrange for the two Japanese players to go to New York, but we made a tape. The result is jazz bass together with the wooden flute and jazz drums together with the noh percussion. It matched really well. I will try to get them all together this autumn in Tokyo.

I also am writing a violin and piano piece for an old friend. I imagine the scene with one violinist on stage and me on the piano bench. Then the music starts. I want to imagine the best and most interesting sound. It can be jazz, it can be sweet music, or it can be anything. There is a violin player and a piano player and people are waiting for the music, so what can you do there? What can you give people? Does the violin start first or the piano? Do you start pianissimo or forte?

So, you’re back to your composition studies from college?

Right, but now I can say: “Improvise this!”