In 2010, the online encyclopedia Drummerworld added a 13-year-old Japanese schoolgirl to its list of the world’s greatest players. Senri Kawaguchi had rocketed to fame after posting YouTube videos of herself drumming along to songs from the “K-On!” anime series, wearing the same sailor-suit school uniform featured in the show.
While many of the musical prodigies celebrated on YouTube quickly fade into obscurity, though, Kawaguchi’s star has continued to rise. This weekend, she’ll be appearing on the main stage at Tokyo Jazz Festival, on a bill shared with living legends Ron Carter and Sadao Watanabe. Not bad going for a third-year university student who’s still only 20.
Kawaguchi will be leading Triangle, her trio with keyboardist Philippe Saisse and bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco. Both men are a few decades older, but she says the age gap doesn’t make much difference in practice.
“We’re all contributing ideas equally,” she says. “I didn’t feel like they were my senpai (superiors), or that there was any kind of hierarchy.”
When the trio hit the studio in Los Angeles to record last year’s “Cider: Hard & Sweet” album — a selection of fleet, virtuoso fusion jazz — she says the process made a refreshing change from what she’d experienced at home.
“When you’re rehearsing, Japanese musicians generally come really well prepared,” she says. “With Philippe and Armand, on the first run-through they’d be messing up, or wouldn’t know when to stop. It was like the piece wasn’t fully formed at first, and then it took shape as we played it … but the end result was much more distinctive and interesting.”
Although the experience of playing at the country’s biggest jazz festival can be daunting for younger musicians, Kawaguchi has already performed in front of far larger audiences as a tour musician with J-pop groups E-girls and Momoiro Clover Z.
“Getting a chance to play in big spaces is really educational,” she says. “I never could have realized how tough it was to perform in the Budokan — I had no idea there was so much echo!”
Like her childhood mentor, renowned session drummer Kozo Suganuma, who started teaching her when she was 8 years old, she says she’s equally happy rocking out as playing within the jazz vernacular.
“When I introduce myself, I don’t say I’m a ‘jazz drummer’ or a ‘jazz musician,'” she says. “It’s a bit of a waste to limit yourself just to jazz, isn’t it?”
For more information, visit www.senridrums.com.