For six nights this week six different combinations of Japanese musicians will gather with bassist Bill Laswell and saxophonist John Zorn at the Pit Inn in Shinjuku. Among those onstage will be drummers Tatsuya Yoshida of The Ruins and Yoshigaki Yasuhiro of Rovo, guitarist and manipulator of electronics Otomo Yoshihide, pianist Yosuke Yamashita and, on Thursday night, a rare appearance by the legendary electric trumpet player Toshinori Kondo.
Laswell and Zorn have been playing in Japan since the early 1980s, but their relationship with Kondo dates back to 1978, when they encountered him, horn in hand, prowling the music scene in New York City.
“I left Japan because I wanted to play with international musicians. Very simple,” recalls the gruff-sounding Kondo. “Other Japanese musicians — Sadao Watanabe, Terumasa Hino — these guys also had been in the States. But the difference between those Japanese jazz musicians and me was I didn’t want to copy jazz. I wanted to play my own music.”
Kondo was 30 years old and had several years of professional playing under his belt when he arrived in Manhattan. As such, he knew what he was after and wasted no time finding it.
“Immediately I began to check out musicians who were playing weird music,” he says. “When I saw John Zorn live, I loved his playing so much. So after the gig, I introduced myself and I told him, ‘Hey, I want to play with you.’ “
Kondo also started playing with Laswell in a band called Mad World Music, with guitarists Fred Frith and Henry Kaisar and drummer Fred Maher. The band didn’t survive long — no more than a few gigs — but it represented a significant step in Kondo’s musical evolution.
“Those guys played so loud! And Bill with that big bass sound — to be heard in that band I started to play electric trumpet.”
While many inevitably compare Kondo’s electric sound with Miles Davis, Laswell hears his friend differently.
“He plays himself. I don’t know how to pinpoint that concept, but it’s him. He doesn’t refer to other trumpet players. Usually when you’re playing a trumpet in an electric setting people say, Miles Davis. But he’s not ever tried to emulate Miles Davis as far as I know. It’s always been an original sound.”
After a few years in New York, Kondo returned to Tokyo to help raise his son and perform with Japanese musicians. He formed the band IMA and experienced increasing exposure internationally, recorded with major labels and even appeared in movies and television commercials in Japan. By 1993, though, he had become disenchanted with life in the spotlight and moved to Amsterdam, where he still lives much of the year.
“I was very bored playing in front of an audience. Also, I thought the music of the 20th century was created by black Americans, white Americans and Europeans. Japanese musicians were not part of this but were just following. For 21st-century music, I thought Asian musicians should join the revolution, and so I had to start to find a new direction — but just by myself.”
Striking out on his own, Kondo started his wide-ranging Blow the Earth project.
“In 1993 I went to the Negev Desert in Israel. In 1994 I went to Peru for one month; I played at Macchu Picchu, Titicaca Lake — everywhere. Then I went to the Himalayas. So the last 10 years my work has been playing my electric trumpet in nature without any audience.”
Since then Kondo has rarely played in Japan, although he found his way back in 2001 — at the request of the Dalai Lama — and organized the three-day World Festival of Sacred Music on Miyajima Island.
Laswell and Zorn have also pursued separate visions since meeting in the late 1970s, but their paths have never stopped crossing. In fact, when they find themselves together it isn’t unusual to find Japanese musicians in the mix — which is why this week’s rotation makes so much sense.
Of course, planning the gigs hasn’t been simple. The night of the 23rd was originally supposed to feature a New York drum ‘n’ bass programmer along with guitarist Pete Cosey. But the programmer got sick, so Laswell replaced him with drummer and tabla player Karsh Kale. And just a couple of weeks ago Cosey also had to back out. Just after the bad news from Cosey, Kondo and Laswell met in a shochu bar in Shinjuku. As they discussed the shifting lineup, Laswell reasoned that it might be fun to play with two drummers — Kale and, perhaps, Hideo Yamaki. Kondo, who has plenty of experience with Yamaki, readily agreed and within minutes he was added to the lineup.
The next step was to let Kanji Suzuki, manager at the Pit Inn, know about the change. Still reeling from the word on Cosey, Suzuki was agreeable but understandably edgy about yet another last-minute switch.
“I don’t like to change a lineup this late because it can look bad from the customer’s perspective,” he said. “But I realize that the whole point is to have Japanese musicians play with Bill Laswell and John Zorn. Chaos is chaos, but maybe something better will come as a result of these changes.”
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