On Sept. 30, guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka, formerly of pioneering rock outfit Sadistic Mika Band, stepped onto the stage at Shibuya Kokaido (Shibuya Public Hall) for a special show. Four days later, the venue, which had seen the likes of Buck-Tick, Boowy and, of course, Sadistic Mika Band, was shuttered (it will re-open as something new in 2018).
Takanaka’s stage was decorated with fake palm trees and a sunset was projected onto a screen behind him. Among the red and orange hues, the 62-year-old’s blue Fender Stratocaster stood out, but it was a gold version, which he later played, that caught people’s attention.
“It’s actually Kazuhiko Kato’s guitar, the Ikebe music shop gave it to me just recently,” Takanaka tells The Japan Times backstage. Kato founded Sadistic Mika Band in 1972, but tragically killed himself in 2009.
“The first time I ever played at the hall was with Sadistic Mika Band in ’72, they were good times,” he says. “In the ’90s, I performed there with (folk singer) Takuro Yoshida and (pop duo) Kinki Kids, and I still remember the smell of the place when I went seeing (rockers) the Ulfuls playing a show there … it was packed with high school girls.”
Takanaka began his solo career in 1976 after leaving Sadistic Mika Band on good terms. His first album, “Seychelles,” helped pioneer Japan’s rock-fusion scene. His tracks were characterized by melodic guitar solos and a slightly tropical vibe (hence the palm trees at Kokaido), but his trademark was a lagoon-blue Yamaha SG guitar he played at concerts. He became so associated with the instrument that Yamaha delayed releasing the guitar in the same color until 1998 — and even then many argue that the tint was slightly off, making Takanaka’s guitar one of a kind.
Despite the association, though, Takanaka used the Stratocaster at the Kokaido show because it’s the same instrument he uses on his latest album, “My Favorite Songs.” It’s a 10-track covers project that takes on songs by Brazilian bossa nova musician Antonio Carlos Jobim and Icelandic fusion band Mezzoforte among others. It’s a solid effort. Takanaka doesn’t fall back on note-for-note reconstructions of the tracks and injects them with an island vibe through percussion and keyboards. Even Frederic Chopin’s “With Love in My Heart” sounds like it was written for relaxing on the beach.
“It’s meant to be listened to when you’re chilling, preferably while drinking a glass of white wine,” Takanaka says. “A restaurant owner I knew was looking for the perfect background music for his shop, and that motivated me to record an album to relax to.”
Unlike some of the techniques on his other work, the distorted leads on 1979’s “Blue Lagoon” and “Ready to Fly” for example, “My Favorite Songs” is defined more by a smooth tone that creates a mellow atmosphere. The distorted guitar solo appears on the cover of Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti” and, when played live, Takanaka doesn’t hold back — as if he’s competing with Carlos Santana himself.
“I did a couple of (saxophonist) Stan Getz covers that could be described as deep jazz with a dash of bossa nova,” Takanaka says. “I don’t have the experience of studying jazz, so it was a challenge for me to interpret his saxophone solos into guitar phrases. When I was a student, I read a book by saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, and realized I would have to attend Berklee (College of Music in Boston) to become any better (at jazz). I was more into the new rock and art rock movements (of the ’70s), like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and my favorite band, Ten Years After. Their guitarist, Alvin Lee, was influential in my playing jazz in a rock style.”
Takanaka has largely wrapped up his “My Favorite Songs” tour, but his team recently announced an additional “Super Version” concert on Nov. 6. When asked what the “super” means (pronounced sūpā in Japanese), Takanaka quips that he’ll be preparing some vegetables and canned food on the stage just like at the sūpā (which also means supermarket).
I laugh before he gives a deadpan apology for the oyaji gyagu (an old man’s groan-worthy pun). “All I can do as a guitarist is just play my instrument and give it the best I got.”
“My Favorite Songs” is in stores now. Masayoshi Takanaka plays Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 6 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥8,000 in adv.; 03-3477-9999). For more information, visit www.bunkamura.co.jp.