American jazz was forbidden in Japan during World War II, when the swing era and the stirrings of proto-bebop were afoot, but listeners embraced it in secret. As the music continued its steady global expansion in the decades that followed, though, Japan’s jazz obsession was anything but hidden. William Minor, in his 2004 book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within, cites a comment from veteran producer Michael Cuscuna: “Japan almost single-handedly kept the jazz record business going during the late 1970s.” And beyond consumers and fans, Minor elaborates, the country also produced its own wealth of jazz players: those who relocated abroad and flourished, those who remained and nurtured local scenes, and those who went back and forth, doing both.
Aesthetically they’ve spanned a wide range—piano mastery and eclectic orchestral jazz from bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi; fiery post-bop from trumpeters Terumasa Hino, Shunzo Ohno, and Tiger Okoshi; contemporary grooves and Brazilian tinge from saxophonist Sadao Watanabe; sagacious piano musings by Yosuke Yamashita and Masabumi Kikuchi; and explosive modern big band and abstract piano from the prolific Satoko Fujii, who has led four different orchestras with players drawn from the talent pools in New York, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe.
This kaleidoscopic mix continues and evolves today, in the fusion/prog/funk of bohemianvoodoo, in the dance and pop synergy of Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, in the striking duo eccentricity of Audace. Others, like trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe, have found traction in the States with their fertile hybrids of groove-jazz and hip-hop, embraced by the scene swirling around the live music presenting agency Revive. Of Japanese and New Zealander heritage, de Clive-Lowe also leads the Tokyo-based Rōnin Arkestra, broadening his global reach with likeminded players on this year’s debut EP, First Meeting.
With its rich and involved history—and propitious future—the Japanese jazz scene has something for every taste. Here are six albums to get you started.
Duo Shiko Ito (accordion) and Manabu Kitada (clarinet, bass clarinet) make sounds that are both hauntingly intimate and spacious, but are actually richly and fully orchestrated. They call the pieces on their standout release laperirostum “improvised compositions,” with lyrical melodies and taut rhythms, episodes of jazz improvisation, and also passages of spellbinding difficulty, requiring prodigious technique that the Tokyo-based pair is always able to make sound effortless. With accordion and clarinet, they bring to mind varied world traditions beyond Japan, from Europe to South America.
Borrowing “Arkestra” from the late, purportedly Saturn-born bandleader Sun Ra, keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe and Rōnin Arkestra blend futuristic beat-based music with echoes of ’60s spiritual jazz and ’70s fusion on their debut EP First Meeting. The Tokyo collective boast players at the forefront of Japan’s jazz and electronic music scenes, including guitarist Tsuyoshi Kosuga and beatmaker Sauce81, with robust horn and rhythm sections urging the music on. Building on his extensive experience in Los Angeles and the U.K., de Clive-Lowe (of mixed Japanese and New Zealander descent) is poised for similar impact in Japan. Their debut full-length is due out later this year.
Osaka-born, classically-trained pianist Eri Yamamoto became transfixed by jazz after hearing the great Tommy Flanagan in New York—an experience that compelled her to move to the city in 1995. In the years since, she has made her musical home in a steady trio with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, and in ensembles led by veteran avant-garde bassist William Parker. Her focus with the trio, on the representative 2016 release Life, is original compositions (including one by Takeuchi): lyrical, darkly hued, and modern-minded, and guided by a radiant calm and control, even in stormier improvisational waters. Somewhere between the jazz mainstream and the avant-garde, Yamamoto has found a conceptual space of her own.
Compact Disc (CD)
A self-taught composer, Migiwa “Miggy” Miyajima led her first big band, called Miggy+, in Japan from 1999 to 2010. Before relocating to New York in 2012, she began a unique affiliation with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, producing the famed big band’s Japanese tours and co-producing two albums that ended up with Grammy nominations. Mentored by veteran composers Jim McNeely and Mike Holober, she formed her own New York big band, the 17-piece Miggy Augmented Orchestra, writing vibrant, urgently swinging music, documented to great effect on the group’s debut album. But even while making waves in the States, Miggy has maintained her ties to Japan as a promoter of cultural exchange through music education and performance programs.
Dancer in Nowhere
Compact Disc (CD)
Whether she’s arranging Thelonious Monk tunes for the Metropole Orkest Big Band, conducting the adventurous Terraza Big Band and Brian Krock’s Big Heart Machine, or creating epic, far-reaching original pieces with her own 13-piece ensemble m_unit on this year’s release Dancer in Nowhere, Tokyo-born Miho Hazama is among a class of young composers bringing bold, imaginative frameworks to large-group jazz from her current base in New York. Her m_unit music is rhythmically intriguing, harmonically advanced, and awash in tonal color—part big band, part chamber group—with French horn, strings, and vibraphone, leaving ample room for its members’ top-tier performances.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
Drummer Toshiyuki Sasaki, bassist Shigeki Umezawa, and keyboardist Daisuke Takeuchi have the rare-groove aesthetic in their bloodstream. Even their band name, Nautilus, is an homage to the crate-digging sound: it’s derived from a 1974 Bob James track that went on to be sampled by Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, and many other hip-hop artists. Across their 2017 release Nautiloid Quest, they exhibit an unerring feel for the beat, playing their titular Bob James track, along with originals and classics by Gil Scott-Heron, Donald Fagen, and Suzanne Vega. The vibe is electric and funky, with guest vocalists, engaging rhythmic sleights of hand, and Takeuchi’s occasional switches to acoustic piano.