My Luxury Lockdown – Jazz

By Steven Tulip, College Office

Like the Kensington Set, I’ve been unable to get my food deliveries from Harrods during the pandemic! Though I haven’t bothered to triple my flower order, or bought silk pyjamas for my zoom meetings, I do keep trying to position myself between the computer and a bookcase at 10.50 on Tuesday mornings.

Recent alumni and former occasional College Office cover Jack Hepworth contacted me to say that mine was the first name to come up when he considered who else would cope best confined to barracks; surrounded by books, music and films.

I thought I would read a book about Japanese Jazz and explore some of the albums it threw up. I first came across ‘J Jazz’ – as it’s now known – at the start of the 1980s, when it was a bit of a fad that I didn’t take too seriously. The only record I can remember is Hunt up Wind and the only artists names I recall are the musicians who recorded it: Hiroshi Fukumara and Sadao Watanabe. The latter is a legendary sax player whose name is known by jazz listeners throughout the world, but trombonist Hiroshi doesn’t even get a mention in the book.

In the intervening years I found out that Japan has a history of making jazz going right back to its roots over a century ago, and following all its twists and turns, complete with an attempted ban during the war years.

The book is called Jazz Journeys to Japan by William Minor and chronicles several visits he made to the country to meet musicians and visit venues and festivals. On his first journey, he stopped off in Hawaii on the way for another festival – a tough gig but I guess somebody had to do it. I’ve now listened to a number of albums by many musicians including another legend Toshika Akiyoshi, Katsumi Watanabe, Yosuke Yamashita, Terumasa Hino, Tiger Okoshi, Masahiko Satoh, Junko Onishi, Makoto Ozone, Miya Miyanoke, Sleepy Matsumato and many more, often using ‘name’ American musicians as sidemen .

I’ve found two books on J Jazz in English and the other is Authenticating Jazz in Japan by E. Taylor Atkins. This focuses on a recurring theme of Jazz Journeys, which is whether J Jazz passes the ‘authenticity’ test, a question I don’t believe is routinely asked of British, European, Brazilian or African Jazz.

Many of the musicians themselves express a nervousness about whether J Jazz stands up with American Jazz in abstract terms like its ‘feel’, whether it’s hip, soulful or swings, and there is an issue that many wear their American influences on their sleeves. My own view is that, subjected to a blindfold test whereby they are played music without knowing who it’s by, most critics would not be able to tell the difference. Some of it is great, some of it isn’t, just like American Jazz.

The other task I set myself was to re-evaluate the piano trio in jazz, which I’ve always found limited and limiting. I was inspired by the recent death of McCoy Tyner, legendary pianist with John Coltrane, and a recent performance at Durham’s Gala Theatre, where the North East’s leading Jazz Musician Paul Edis (since relocated to London) played an impassioned tribute to another legendary pianist Bill Evans. Bill Evans played on the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, the most famous, revered, iconic and successful album in jazz history and many think Evans’ contribution to the album was far greater than Miles gave him credit for.

I’ve taken in some of the major pianists who have played in a standard jazz piano trio of piano, bass and drums, including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Cecil Taylor, Evans, McCoy, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Bob Jones. I’ve also explored piano trios led by celebrated bass players and drummers like Charles Mingus and Max Roach respectively, and revisited the Charles Mingus album Money Jungle, which features Max Roach and the man Miles Davis described as the King of Jazz, Duke Ellington. 

This is a work in progress and, while I generally still prefer trumpets, saxophones and other instruments in my jazz, Art Tatum is such an extraordinary musician, it’s impossible not to be dazzled by him; you also never quite know what to expect from free jazz maverick Cecil Taylor. There are a couple of excellent tracks by Evans which are well worth a listen: Peace Piece, which would turn up on Kind of Blue as Flamenco Sketches and a piano trio version of Milestones by his old boss.

New to me was that the first two albums by Bob James – one of the leading exponents of jazz-funk in the seventies and the Godfather of the much maligned smooth jazz in the eighties – were piano trio albums. A fine pianist he was too, before he pioneered the Fender Rhodes electric piano on things like the theme from the popular American sitcom Taxi, which launched the careers of Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd and others.

These two strands have created some cross-fertilisation and intertextuality and has led to me discovering albums by Japanese pianists in a trio setting, sometimes with Japanese musicians and sometimes American. Works include Amorphism by Masahiko Satoh, clearly influenced massively by Chick Corea and here featuring Eddie Gomez, who played with Corea when I saw him live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years back; and legendary drummer Steve Gadd, who I saw with Bob Jones at the London Jazz Festival a few years further back! 

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