On a chilly Friday afternoon in December, trumpet player Toshinori Kondo reclines in the clutter of his Kawasaki recording studio, pours out two cups of shōchū liquor, and starts to explain what prompted him to abandon a lucrative career in Japan and move to Amsterdam in 1993.
“One thing is, I got f-cking bored with any music that was created in the last century — the 20th century,” he says, in fluently coarse English. For Kondo, the once-thrilling momentum of popular music — from Delta blues to jazz to rock — had sputtered out: too much money, too many rehashes, too many songs about love. So he took his electric trumpet and box of effects pedals, broke up his band and wandered, quite literally, into the wilderness in search of “the next century’s music.”
In December 1993, Kondo headed to the Negev Desert in Israel with an NHK film crew and recorded a series of solo improvisations, al fresco. Using a language of slow, plangent tones and electrified trills, he attempted to start a dialogue with his surroundings — sometimes freaky, sometimes beautiful, sometimes a bit new age-y. It was the first volley in an ongoing project, titled “Blow the Earth,” that has since taken him to locations such as Peru’s Machu Picchu and the Ladakh Himalaya region in India.
More recently, Kondo performed at scenic spots throughout Japan between 2007 and 2011 (he moved back here permanently in 2012). On a DVD compilation released in 2013, you can see him serenading the sunrise at Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, playing a tortured lament on the tsunami-ravaged coast of Kirikiri, Iwate Prefecture, and duetting with a Shugendō mountain priest on the snow-swept slopes of Mount Yudono in Yamagata Prefecture.
“It was a very simple idea — but then I started to do it,” he says, with a croaky laugh. “This is the difference between me and other musicians. Other musicians would have (better) ideas, but unfortunately most musicians wouldn’t do it — because of money. They have to survive. If you follow new ideas, you cannot survive anymore.”
And what about Kondo: How does he survive? “Man,” he says in a slow drawl, and laughs again. “We need some drugs to start to talk about this kind of deep side, you know!”
Early into the project, Kondo discovered that the blistering techniques acquired during his reign as one of Japan’s foremost free-jazz musicians didn’t serve him as well for communicating with nature. Rather than using short, sharp bursts of breath — designed, he says, “to kick the ass of human beings” — he began to favor longer tones that resonated better with the landscape.
At the same time, he remained wedded to the electronic hardware that he’s used since the late 1970s, allowing him to conjure a panoply of unearthly sounds from his horn — and crank the volume up.
“The Negev Desert is so wide, so huge . . . if I play just a small f-cking acoustic trumpet, (it’s a) tiny sound,” he says. “No correspondence.”
Kondo first started to play electric trumpet in 1979, while he was living in New York and gigging in the city’s avant-garde music scene. Having already mapped out every sonic quirk and extended technique the conventional trumpet had to offer, he was already eager for a change. So after getting drowned out during a particularly noisy show with bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Fred Maher and guitarists Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, he turned up for the next gig with an electric pickup fitted in his trumpet, and jacked himself straight into a Marshall amplifier.
Following the example of Miles Davis, Kondo inserted his pickup into the shank of the trumpet’s mouthpiece, rather than in front of the bell, allowing him to capture the subtler nuances of his playing. He draws an analogy with traditional Japanese wind instruments like the hichiriki and shakuhachi, where the sound reflects the contours of each breath.
“Most trumpet players think the trumpet is a musical instrument to make sound with breathing,” he says; “but I found (it) is a musical instrument to express breathing.”
He sees a parallel here with meditation, a practice in which breath control is also paramount.
“To meditate, breathing is the most important,” he says. “To contact with another energy, humans use breathing . . . I like to say ‘Blow the Earth’ is also my own meditation, in nature.”
Though Kondo had conceived his “Blow the Earth” project as a solitary pilgrimage, the NHK documentaries of his sessions in the Negev Desert and at Machu Picchu found a wider audience. The Dalai Lama was particularly impressed, and contacted him in 1997 to ask him to organize the Japan leg of a globe-straddling music event, the World Festival of Sacred Music.
At the peak of Kondo’s celebrity, when he appeared in credit card commercials and co-starred in popular TV dramas, this might not have been such a stretch. But that was then. “I’m just a musician,” he recalls saying; “I left human society, I have no f-cking money.” After repeatedly demurring, he eventually relented and arranged to hold the festival on Hiroshima Prefecture’s picturesque Miyajima Island in 2001. But when the financial support he says was promised to him by a Japanese advertising behemoth failed to materialize, he had to cover the costs himself.
“I lost f-cking tons of money,” he says. “More than $300,000.” Fourteen years on, he’s still paying off the debts.
All the same, Kondo insists that it wasn’t financial motivations that compelled him to start selling music downloads via his website recently. The genesis for Toshinori Kondo Recordings, which treats paying subscribers to an album’s worth of unreleased material each month for an entire year, was actually a “stupid bicycle accident” that happened last May.
Kondo sustained nerve damage to his neck in the crash that left him unable to play the trumpet for a couple of months. While convalescing in a bedsit next to his studio, he began to delve into the archive of solo and group recordings that he’d amassed during the previous two decades.
“I wasn’t satisfied with my sound back then,” he says, switching briefly into Japanese. “I’d always be asking ‘What’s next?’, so even when I made recordings, I didn’t make much effort to release them at the time.” Listening back, he realized that he’d been sitting on a few dozen albums’ worth of material. After making his belated Facebook debut over the summer and finding himself inundated with friend requests, he decided to try his luck with his online audience, and launched the subscription service in September.
Now fully recovered from the accident, Kondo is back on the live circuit, and gigging with a fervor that he hasn’t shown for decades. But after 20 years of playing only sporadic shows in Japan and overseas, he says he’s been disappointed to find how little has changed at music venues. Why, for instance, do so many places still only have speakers at the front of the house?
“What a stupid idea!” he snorts. “Most of the concert halls, they put two f-cking speakers — sound just comes from the front, there’s no sound from the back. But if your body is surrounded by sound, it can have a better feeling.”
“Listening to music is like making love on the bed,” he continues, with an impish grin. “Almost the same. Which means for musicians, for club owners, they have to set up the best sound situation for lovers. But only just two ways of speakers — not enough! She never comes!”
Although he continues to play the odd gig with old pals like Laswell, drummer Tatsuya Nakamura and free-jazz titan Peter Brotzmann, Kondo says that in the future he’ll be seeking out new collaborators online. He’s particularly excited about the prospect of finding young producers and beatmakers who’ve severed their ties with the music of the past 100 years.
“From now, I really want to say to younger musicians in the world: ‘F-ck the last century’s music,’ ” he says. “You guys should make this century’s music.”
Toshinori Kondo is currently on tour. For more information about shows and releases, visit www.toshinorikondo.com