There were few groups on the planet as exciting as the Yosuke Yamashita Trio at its incandescent peak. Led by a pianist whose percussive attack could rival Cecil Taylor, the band gained instant notoriety when it debuted at Tokyo’s Pit Inn in 1969.
As Japanese musicians embraced the liberating potential of free jazz, nobody did it faster or harder. When the group made its European debut in 1974, the local press dubbed its relentless musical assault, “kamikaze jazz.”
In an early statement of intent, Yamashita declared: “Jazz is neither an art nor a work of art … jazz is more like boxing or soccer, with sound.”
Speaking at a rehearsal studio at the present-day Pit Inn, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, Yamashita smiles on being reminded of this pronouncement.
“That’s how we explained our approach when we started,” he says. “We were abandoning everything about how jazz had been done up until that point.”
Later this month, Yamashita will reunite with musicians from the trio’s various incarnations — drummers Takeo Moriyama and Shota Koyama, and saxophonists Seiichi Nakamura, Akira Sakata and Eiichi Hayashi — for a 50th anniversary concert in Shinjuku. Tickets for the show sold out within minutes of going on sale in September.
“It’s going to be nothing but old geezers in the audience, isn’t it?” Yamashita jokes.
Despite recent bouts of poor health, the 77-year-old doesn’t seem daunted by the prospect of rekindling the explosive energy that powered the trio during its original 14-year run.
“It’s always physically taxing, because I throw myself into it without thinking. But it’s so much fun,” he says. “Everyone is playing with their own bands now, but when we get together like this, the old techniques come back naturally. Moriyama and I have a rhythm that only the two of us understand, like a secret code, and when one of us starts playing it the other instantly locks in.”
Yamashita’s joyous sparring sessions with Moriyama, the trio’s original drummer, helped define the group’s sound. Compared to units led by fellow voyagers such as drummer Masahiko Togashi and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, the band was distinguished by its punishing physicality.
“The drums and piano were fighting it out,” says Yamashita. “Using my fingers wasn’t enough, so when (Moriyama) hit me with a ‘Boom!’ I’d respond by going ‘Blam!’ with my elbows.”
When saxophonist Nakamura left the band in 1972, his replacement, Sakata, brought a blistering attack and absurdist humor that propelled the music to even more ecstatic heights.
For many fans, this was the definitive line-up of the trio, captured on live albums “Clay” and “Chiasma.” Both were recorded on tour in Europe, where the group caused a sensation at the International New Jazz Festival in Moers, Germany, in 1974. When the group played at Berliner Jazztage the following year, on a bill including Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock, the organizer declared it the highlight of the event.
The boisterous reception from overseas audiences helped the trio push itself even harder. During a performance at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Sakata put his horn to one side and started babbling gibberish at the crowd.
“He probably wouldn’t have taken it that far in Japan,” says Yamashita, chuckling.
As Teruto Soejima writes in his authoritative 2002 history, “Free Jazz in Japan,” the trio’s European tours clinched its status “as part of the elite of the avant-garde, and, indeed, as one of the most popular groups among them.”
Back at home, Yamashita aimed to cultivate an audience beyond the confines of the free jazz scene. From the group’s inception, he insisted on playing at the mainstream jazz venue Pit Inn, rather than its specialist offshoot, New Jazz Hall.
“Playing at New Jazz Hall seemed akin to saying you were doing something unusual, and only asking a particular kind of person to come and listen,” he says. “I wanted to play at a venue where you might hear swing or Dixieland or modern jazz the following day, so people would think, ‘Huh? What’s this?'”
The trio was also regularly booked to appear at rock and folk festivals, where it received surprisingly warm receptions.
“We weren’t invited to many jazz festivals,” Yamashita says with a laugh. “The rock and folk crowd seemed to get it, because we were doing something really reckless.”
One of the most famous engagements came early in the band’s career, when it played to a group of student activists barricaded inside Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1969. The performance was recorded for a TV documentary by producer Soichiro Tahara, and later released as the album “Dancing Kojiki.”
As Yamashita recalls, when he boasted he wouldn’t mind dying while playing the piano, Tahara slyly told him that it could be arranged. Yet while the producer had envisaged violent clashes breaking out between rival student factions, in the end, the performance was greeted with respectful silence.
This was at the peak of the student protest movement in Japan. As Yamashita recalls: “They were firing tear gas in the streets right near Pit Inn, and there were people running around with helmets and staves.”
Although the trio’s music captured the fervor of the era, the pianist insists that it wasn’t inherently political. If the group was out to destroy anything, it was musical convention.
Yamashita had followed a roundabout route to the front of the free jazz vanguard. Forced to take violin lessons as a child, he discovered it was more fun to muck around on the family piano. His older brother recruited him to play in a swing combo when he was still in his mid-teens.
Yet he was also curious about classical music. Realizing that he wouldn’t be accepted as a piano major, he enrolled for the composition course at Kunitachi College of Music.
“Composition is really similar to ad-libbing, as you’re having to come up with music by yourself, on the spot,” Yamashita says.
In the early 1960s, Japanese musicians were beginning to stray outside the boundaries of modern jazz. Yamashita joined the late-night sessions at Ginza’s Ginparis club, a hothouse for experimentation, and in 1965 played with drummer Togashi in a short-lived quartet hailed by critics as Japan’s first free jazz group.
Watching John Coltrane perform in Tokyo the following year, during his most free-form period, was another major influence. But Yamashita insists he wasn’t quite ready to throw out the rulebook yet.
His spiritual conversion came after a severe case of pleurisy forced him to take an 18-month furlough. Reconvening with fellow music school graduates Moriyama and Nakamura in early 1969, he felt compelled to take a more radical approach.
“When I returned from my illness and started playing again, I couldn’t find anything I could get passionate about,” he says. After their bassist suddenly dropped out, the three remaining members decided to try playing “recklessly,” and were delighted with the results.
Half a century later, the thrill remains.
“It’s like being instantly transported back 50 years,” Yamashita says of the upcoming reunion concert. “We can reproduce it immediately. Although maybe ‘reproduce’ isn’t the right word, as it’s still totally free.”
The Yosuke Yamashita Trio plays at Shinjuku Bunka Center in Tokyo on Dec. 23. For more information, visit www.jamrice.co.jp/yosuke.