Not many Japanese jazz musicians have played in front of a President of the United States, but Kengo Nakamura is one. After leaving his hometown of Osaka to study at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music in 1988, where he switched from electric to acoustic bass, and struggling for a while to find gigs, he has become one of the most in-demand bassists in New York City. His rock-solid swing and lyrical soloing also caught the ear of Wynton Marsalis, notorious for his high standards, who invited him to join his septet.
Nakamura now has not only a full schedule as bassist with many different New York leaders (such as pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Makoto Ozone), but has also just released a strikingly original and highly polished CD, “Roots,” his third as leader. This new CD, released on Japanese label 55 Records, shows Nakamura even more in control than on his 2002 release, “Say Hello to Say Goodbye.” “Roots” showcases a fuller range of his acoustic playing, with solo pieces, collaborations with Ozone and an intriguing variety of approaches. His years of experience Stateside come to fruition on this release, with great compositions and a fluid group dynamic. Nakamura just has the knack of pushing his band mates to swing and swing hard.
Nakamura took time to talk about his new CD, and how he got where he is, during a recent, mini-tour of Japan. Though this lively and warm master musician makes his home in New York these days, he tours Japan frequently. His group visits Japan the second week in April for a two-week tour.
How did you get started in the States?
When I went to Berklee, I knew only two songs: “A Train” and “Satin Doll.” At the beginning I was playing electric bass, but I switched to acoustic after I heard Charles Mingus’ music. That was like, “Pow!” my soul opened up and I knew that’s what I wanted to play. I had to start practicing all the scales. The strings are fatter, and there are no frets, so I really had to start all over again. One day, some guys knocked on the practice room door, and said they needed a bass player. I didn’t play very well, so I got a very cold vibe from those guys. They needed a player who was already there. That was a good experience, and competition was strong, so I just practiced more.
Then you moved to New York?
That was the real world. Some few great players like Antonio Hart or Roy Hargrove, my classmates, could find jobs because they were ready. But I wasn’t ready. You also have to be aggressive, and you have to make connections. I went to lots of jam sessions, at places along Bleecker Street, at the Village Gate and others held by the New School. I was always checking out the good music, like at Bradley’s. Then, I had to introduce myself. I went through tons of cards. Finally, things started to move, but it was really slow and really hard.
Was it harder because you are Japanese?
That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s really any borderline in that sense in America. But you have to be a good swing player, no matter what. If you can swing, then that’s what people want.
How did you get hooked up with Wynton Marsalis?
At a jam session, I got a chance to play with him. I was lucky he could hear my sound. We played together, and time went by and my phone was just not ringing. Finally, though, I had the opportunity to join him.
He has a reputation for being a perfectionist.
Yes, indeed. The first time I had a chance to play with Wynton, [pianist] Cyrus Chestnut came up to me and said, “This is a rare occasion, and may be the only chance to play with him, so swing hard.” If you don’t swing, he doesn’t like it, but otherwise, he’s very easy to work with. He is extremely organized and has everything set up. His suggestions are great.
And you played with him for the president, too?
Yeah, it was very cool. We went with Wynton to the President’s Summit in 1997. Clinton was there. It was a huge crowd. They were all there listening.
I don’t think the new president is interested in jazz.
No, I think he likes more like country and western music.
On your new CD, you have a lot of swing, but not just that.
First of all, I like to keep things traditional, but I also like to keep things new. I want to put in everything really. Jazz always reflects lots of history, the time, and the era. In the ’80s and ’90s, and now, I guess, we have a sense of chaos. But we also have healing. So, I’d like my music to represent the acoustic sound of jazz, but also represent healing.
There’s also a warm feeling.
I played with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson a lot and I knew Marcus Printup for years, so we are like brothers. When you go into the recording studio, sometimes, you have no choice, especially if the producer is famous. You get all uptight and can’t relax. On my CD, I wanted to make the sound more comfortable, and really play with these musicians, not have someone else decide for me.
So many CDs sound like the players weren’t even in the same room.
Yeah, I know. This was a great opportunity, because I could be the producer and organize everything. Mr. Itsuno, the executive producer, said, “OK, you do it.” As the leader, and as a bass player, I could do anything. That’s a great vibe. I could play solo or in a duo with Makoto Ozone. Then I could do the trio on the tango tune, and a quintet with horns. As a leader, I mixed the variety of settings. It’s more my work that way.
As a bass player, how do you find how far front or how far back in the sound to play?
In the quintet, I don’t need to play melody. But, I would like to represent my music to the people; soloing is nice because melodies represent the inner space of the mind. I like to keep the bottom, but also keep the melody. On some bass players’ CD, you hear bass, bass, bass and even the melody is bass. But for me, I like to think of the whole entire album as one set of music, so I want to accompany at times, too.
Does it feel different playing here and in the States?
Sometimes, people are quiet here in Japan, especially in a concert space, but once we are connected, that’s not the case. Japanese jazz fans are very friendly. In fact, every place, once you connect, it’s the same. In Italy, Japan, New York, wherever, once you get into the spirit and the soul of the music, then everyone likes a good time. Once I get off the stage, I’m just a regular guy, you know. I’m just a bass player.
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