Japanese culture is famed for importing artistic forms and converting them to new patterns, but one local group of foreign musicians is trying to reverse that trend. Candela, a group of four American musicians with diverse musical backgrounds, creates jazz-based music with Japanese melodies; folk tunes using that quintessentially Japanese instrument, the shakuhachi. They create an original sound that is rooted in jazz, propelled by Asian and Latin rhythms, and inflected by an original Japanese sensibility.
The group was formed five years ago by shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner and jazz pianist Jonathan Katz, together with jazz bassist Mark Tourian and multi-instrumentalist Robert Belgrade. These four longtime members, along with a variety of guest percussionists, have performed throughout Japan (“From soba shops to concert halls,” said Katz), and became the first jazz group to play the famed Kyoto Concert Hall last year. Last summer, they appeared at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival and New York Blue Note, as well as at other U.S. venues. With their latest album, “Rise Above,” to be released July 24, Katz and Huebner took time to talk about their music before an upcoming tour.
For their first three years together, Candela was a Latin jazz group. Though their identity was neatly resolved on their debut recording, “Mogami,” two years ago, categorizing them is still not easy. They fit within jazz, but add a broad array of other musical elements. “We’ve always been based in jazz, with improvisation and stylistic elements, and with jazz arrangements, but we have all these other non-jazz instruments and elements of Japanese, Indian and classical music as well,” Huebner said.
“I suppose we’re jazz by default, because jazz swallows up everything,” Katz added.
The common ground of the musicians may be American jazz, but what makes the band unique is its distinctive Japanese sound. After the initial Latin jazz years, they evolved toward a more down-to-(Japanese)-earth approach.
“I started to want more Japanese stuff,” Huebner explained. “I had studied shakuhachi, but was playing sax and flute. We were living in Japan, but everyone was in denial about living here. So, we decided to just face it.”
With that change in mind, they started writing pieces that more closely reflected their Japanese experience, with shakuhachi as the main voice.
That was easier said than done, though. “The shakuhachi is a five-holed instrument and the basic scale is pentatonic,” Katz said of the technical hurdles. “When composing, I had to think of the harmony to fit a pentatonic melody. I’m still figuring out all the effects inherent to the shakuhachi that only the shakuhachi can do.”
“The real challenge is not so much melody, because it can be done chromatically,” Huebner added. “The real challenge is texture. Japanese music is more sophisticated and subtle in terms of timbre, or tone color. But at the level of harmony, it’s not necessarily more subtle.”
Not wanting to be pegged as “shakuhachi jazz,” the group continued to expand its sound to capitalize on everyone’s different experiences and talents. All the musicians double up, with Belgrade surrounded onstage by an arsenal of exotic instruments.
“There are many combinations going on, but can you make music with it? And can you make the audience respond to it?” Katz asked. “The ‘Nepali Bicycle Song,’ for example, has tabla, shakuhachi and a pianica [the plastic minikeyboard that elementary school kids blow into]. It doesn’t matter as long as it has substance.”
Substance, of course, is based on experience, which runs deep in the group. Huebner studied traditional Japanese music at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. On scholarship there, he studied shakuhachi under Living National Treasure Goro Yamaguchi. Katz studied French horn, piano and composition at Yale and Eastman School of Music. He first came to Japan on a band tour before receiving a Japanese-language scholarship. Belgrade played music for years while traveling around the world, most notably studying tabla with Ali Akbar Khan, and picking up rhythms and instruments along the way. Bassist Tourian is a newcomer to Japan, with only six years here compared to Huebner’s 17. After studying classical cello and playing in New York jazz clubs, Tourian moved to Tokyo and plays bass with many jazz groups, most recently appearing with famed saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin.
Those ideas and attitudes, though, at first threatened to overwhelm the shakuhachi. The delicacy of its sound often got lost in the onstage competition. “All these Western instruments are so dense, but after five years of working on this, we’ve finally figured out how to let the shakuhachi breathe and not get the sound clogged up,” Huebner said. “Everybody learns how to get out of each other’s way and find the pocket.”
Hitting that group groove comes from each member’s full participation. On “Rise Above,” not only does everyone contribute originals and help with arrangements, but they also all work toward delicately balancing the distinct individual sounds. The shakuhachi tones float over the deep bass pulse; the piano’s richness forms a taut mesh with the exotic percussion.
When it comes to the practicalities of the nonmusical world — such as booking, promotion and record-bin placement — their balanced diversity can be an issue. “We are in a gray area, I suppose.” Huebner says. “But that’s another good reason for calling the CD, ‘Rise Above,’ because the black-and-white mentality is what is causing so much harm in the world today.
“So, that’s our statement, to rise above, and show that it’s about music. It’s not just about jazz or hogaku [Japanese music] or whatever category. More than ever, it’s necessary to stay positive.”
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