“The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune,” John Kaizan Neptune said.
He speaks as a professional musician of 30 years’ standing. Having studied the bamboo flute, he brought to it his background in jazz, thereby earning a reputation for versatility and “a technically sophisticated melting pot of sounds.”
He said, “Mine was a natural process. It was really interesting, and took me quite a while. I forged my own path, created my own little niche. I really feel good about the things I am doing.”
Born into a musical family in California, Neptune as a boy was passionate about the trumpet and drums. Whimsical and high-spirited, he was also passionate about sports and chose to go to the University of Hawaii because of the allure of surfing there.
Beginning the study of ethnomusicology at the university, he wanted to learn the Indian tabla. Instead, he turned to the Japanese bamboo flute. “On the high notes it sounds like a flute, and on the lower ones it sounds husky, almost like a saxophone,” he said.
Neptune spent a year in Kyoto and returned to Hawaii to complete his degree. He came back to Japan. Did he expect to make a living by playing the bamboo flute? “Not at all,” he said emphatically. “My original idea was to study an instrument which would lead me into its country. I would study, and find the ideas to make something different with Japanese music and my own.
“Then I found I had to start writing music, and making instruments to produce better sounds. That was part of what I did when I was not performing or recording.”
In March 1977, after what he calls “several years of intense study,” Neptune received his master’s certificate in the Tozan School of Shakuhachi. He also received the honorary name Kaizan, or Sea Mountain, which works well with Neptune, his real and quite unusual family name.
With bamboo flute expression, in his performances Neptune blended his early jazz artistry and echoes from different musical backgrounds. The Cultural Affairs Agency of the Ministry of Education selected his record release “Bamboo” for the Outstanding Album of the Year Award for 1980. This was the first time a jazz album and a non-Japanese artist received the honor.
He continued to bring in other musicians and other instruments to play with him on the bamboo flute, in concerts that used jazz rhythms. He found American and German musicians interested in working with Japanese as well as Western influences. He went to India.
“That was really nice,” Neptune said. “There are so many great musicians in India, easy to work with. They have an intriguing sense of melody, and there is a wide variety going on.”
In his “River Rhythm,” Indian instruments and players and a Malaysian drummer brought in unusual effects to combine with the bamboo flute to create “truly exotic sound colors.”
With the music “Prime Numbers,” Neptune set out to “feature traditional Japanese instruments in ways that were not typically traditional.” He used the bamboo flute, the shamisen, the koto and the bass koto.
Neptune performs live on tours of North America, Europe and Australia, as well as around Asia.
Making bamboo instruments is “a serious project,” especially when he is involved in the heavy work of digging around the roots without damaging them. He cuts the bamboo, and subjects it to various processes that can take up to two years before he is satisfied with the results.
He pursues this practice at his countryside Chiba home-workshop when he is not performing or recording.
Neptune has just released his 23rd recording, “Bamboo Magic,” made in India and Japan.
Next month, he will release his first DVD music video and is now writing a piece of music to be performed in Bulgaria later this year.