“Jazz and Japan shouldn’t mix,” says All-Japan: The Catalogue of Everything Japanese. “After all, the essence of jazz lies in improvisation — a concept largely absent from both traditional Japanese music and Japanese society as a whole. Japan may adapt, but it does not improvise.” And yet, as the book goes on to tell, jazz and Japan do indeed mix, and they began doing so even before the Second World War. Japanese jazz dates back to the 1920s, when it drew inspiration from visiting Filipino bands who had picked the music up from their American occupiers. In the century since then, devoted Japanese players (and their even more devoted Japanese listeners) have developed perhaps the most robust jazz culture in the world.
But please, don’t believe me: have a listen to the mix of 1970s Japanese jazz on vinyl above. Spun by Turkish DJ Zag Erlat on his Youtube channel My Analog Journal, it showcases such musicians as trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki, saxophonist Mabumi Yamaguchi, and guitarist Kiyoshi Sugimoto. These names will sound familiar — though not over-familiar — to those of us who’ve spent years digging crates around the world for Japanese jazz on vinyl.
Thanks to Youtube, they’re now becoming better-known among jazz fans of all stripes: just like the 1980s Japanese high-tech disco-funk now known as city pop, Japanese jazz owes much of its modern recognition to the algorithm. As a result, actual Japanese jazz albums like the ones nonchalantly displayed by Erlat in the video have become a hotter commodity than they used to be.
Like all of Erlat’s “coffee break sessions” (others of which focus on Japanese drama funk, Turkish female singers from the 70s, and “USSR grooves“), this mix runs a brisk 33 minutes. If you enjoy the taste enough to go back for more, allow me to suggest the work of such Japanese jazzmen as Teruo Nakamura, Masayoshi Takanaka, and Terumasa Hino — much of which comes from the 1970s, an era that enthusiasts across the world now see as something of a golden age. You’ll still only have skimmed the surface of Japanese jazz, one of the many Western inventions taken to another level of mastery, and exhilarating new directions, in the Land of the Rising Sun. As one commenter on Youtube puts it, “Japanese Jazz is like Japanese whisky: underrated, but very high quality.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.