As an English teacher, I've had the good fortune to meet many interesting students: prominent business leaders, exceptionally talented young people, artists, and entertainers. A disproportionate number of my students have been jazz musicians. One of the perks of an English teacher is, every once in a while, I get a front-row seat to an expressive jazz serenade.

The spirit of the artisan seems well-preserved in Japan. There is just something in the cultural milieu, some painstaking commitment to craft, that is part and parcel of this culture. Perhaps it's just my good luck, but this is as true of jazz musicians as any other creative occupation. I'm not alone in thinking such; Japan is home to the highest proportion of jazz fans in the world.

So, while it's raining outside, and I just so happen to have some wine, I thought it might be nice to revisit some Japanese jazz classics. While I'm no expert on the issue, it seems to me that the 1970s was one of the essential decades, in terms of renown releases, for the genre in this country. Regardless, there are some definite must-listens for the aficionadoes among us.

Ryo Fukui—Scenery 1976

At the age of 22, Ryo Fukui began teaching himself piano, and by age 26, he released his seminal work, Scenery. If you listen to jazz, this album is easy to appreciate. Fukui's piano stylings are solid but individualistic. While his playing dominates throughout the record, it doesn't come off as showy. And of course, there is excellent comping on every track.

The album's mood is well-balanced, joyful, but a touch somber. There's a certain withdrawing at times, yet it never becomes despondent. It'd have made for an unforgettable evening to hear Ryo Fukui play Scenery in his legendary club "Slowboat." Unfortunately, the Sapporo native passed away from lymphoma in 2016.

Hōzan Yamamoto and Masabumi Kikuchi—Silver World 1971

In the early days, Japanese jazz was criticized by many as "derivative." While the art form was fully established by the 1920s, it was banned during WWII. Perhaps this suppression of expression forced musicians to look to American influences in the 1950s as the ban was lifted. Nevertheless, until the 1960s, Japanese jazz was widely seen as merely mimicking American tastes.

In the 1960s, musicians grew weary of dismissal and began incorporating national influences such as traditional instrumentation into their music. By the 1970s, several performers had fully established the trend.

Silver World is a sparkling example of this fusion. Hōzan Yamamoto was a renowned shakuhachi (end-blown bamboo flute) player at the time of recording. The mysterious undertones of his bamboo flute combined with Masabumi Kikuchi's contemplative piano create an absorbing sonic experience. With the uneasiness of a Kabuki play, the duo creates an engaging dance of elements. The work is uneasy and serene. Compelling and quiet. A must-listen, for sure.

Seri Ishikawa—I Wanted to Be a Village Girl 1972

On any jazz list, you need at least one diva. Seri Ishikawa is a half-Japanese, half-American singer who was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. While her music incorporated several stylings—enka, pop, world music, etc.—there were definite jazz influences from time to time. Here she is at her most happening.

It might just be me, but the electric piano stylings are reminiscent of The Doors. Ishikawa's breezy singing and backing orchestration make for a quintessentially 1970s track. I can almost hear it in a Tarantino movie.

Terumasa Hino Quintet—Into The Heaven 1970

Terumasa is a prolific trumpeter. With a Miles Davis-esque sound, he has over 50 recordings to his name. While he initially worked with the aforementioned pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, in 1970, he branched off to pursue more free form stylings.

Into the Heaven marked the artist's first step into avant-garde jazz, a freer style based more on improvisation. While other releases in the genre can be especially spacey, Into the Heaven maintains a constant throughline. It doesn't shy away from abstract passages. Yet, these contemplative instances do not disengage listeners. Overall, the album retains enough momentum even during more expressive phrases. And upbeat tracks are particularly exciting.

Casiopea—Casiopea 1979

And finally, to wrap up the decade, how about some jazz fusion. With a rotating lineup, Casiopea was formed in 1976. They released Casiopea in 1979, the first of 30 albums the group would release throughout its history. The most recent release being the 2019 Panspermia.

In many ways, the cover of this album says it all: two racecars drifting. Casiopea is a high tempo album full of upbeat basslines and funky transitions. There is an evident funk influence, and the stylings of the album would seem right at home as a modern-day jam-band act.

Regardless, this album serves as a funky pickup, perfect any time of day.

By - Luke Mahoney.

/ /