Japanese jazz and all that jive

Saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu performs in Tel Aviv.

Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the past 10 years, the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv has been offering fans of all musical stripes rich pickings, from straightahead jazz to rock and pop, sounds of various ethnic origins and much more.
Even so, next week’s two-date slot by the Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band promises to stretch the club’s sonic entertainment boundaries a mite further. Kazutoki Umezu is a 66-year-old Japanese jazz saxophonist who has been spreading his creative net far and wide for more than four decades Works such as the reedman’s “Dowser” clearly show that the Japanese band leader often takes no prisoners. The title track of an album released in December 2005 carves a mean path through wide swathes of rhythmic and melodic territory, from post-punk to jazzy sensibilities, through rock and in-your-face funk. The CD is generically tagged as “jazz, folk, world music and country music” performed across a stylistic palette said to take in “avant-garde jazz, fusion and klezmer.” That serves clear and multifarious notice of what we can expect to get from the dynamic quartet on September 13 and 14 (both at 8 p.m.).
Umezu started along his musical path on a very different instrument.
“When I was 10 years old, I played harmonica in the school band,” he recalls. “And then I joined the choir in the same school when I was 11.”
At the time, the youngster was not exactly into envelopepushing fare and says his early musical taste centered “mainly [on] Japanese pop and children’s songs on the radio and famous classical music that the teacher recommended.”
By the time he was 14, Umezu had progressed to clarinet and gradually got into Western contemporary sounds, as 1960s pop and rock began to leave their imprint on his rapidly developing artistic consciousness.
“The Beatles was the most shocking memory for me, as [with] many same age musicians,” he notes.
The Fab Four may have wowed the teenager, but he maintained a strong bond with his roots.
“I listened to many kinds of Japanese music on the radio since I was born,” he says. “I love [traditional Japanese genres] Enka and Ro-kyoku and Japanese folk song and film music.”
That also found its way into Umezu’s work.
“I released a solo Enka album,” he adds, referring to his 2008 album Kazutoki Umezu Plays the Enka Woodwind Solo.
Typically, when Umezu began to develop an ear for improvisational sounds, he tended toward the freer end of the jazz spectrum, citing free jazz forefather reedman Ornette Coleman and envelope-pushing Chicago-based collective the Art Ensemble of Chicago as early inspirations.
While a textual description of Umezu’s ethos may give the impression that the Levontin 7 faithfuls who turn up next Tuesday and Wednesday may be presented with some pretty challenging material, the band is far more likely to pump out sounds tailor made to get the patrons jiving around the basement venue show space. The reedman says that rhythm and groove are central to his work, and that he tends to shake it up himself.
“I love to dance in tempo, polyrhythm and in nontempo,” he declares, “so I try to do [it] all.”
He does that, with interest. The Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band was formed in 1999 and has put out 11 albums to date. In addition to the founder-leader, who plays alto and soprano saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, the group incorporates compatriots multidisciplinary electric guitarist Natsuki Kido and bassist Takeharu Hayakawa, as well as veteran American drummer-percussionist Joe Trump, who has worked with a dizzying array of acts that take in such diverse musical sensibilities as avant-garde industrial, improv psychedelic acid jazz, and straight-up blues and folky-funky crossover Celtic music. A typical Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band gig can run the gamut of straightahead jazz, feral rock, freeflowing funk and ephemeral improvisational endeavor.
Considering his wide open horizon take on music, it comes as no surprise to learn that Umezu predominantly found his own way through the mysteries of the jazz morasses.
“I was a student of the Kunitachi Music College [in Tokyo],” he says. “I studied jazz by myself. At that time I was dreaming of being a jazz musician.”
The aforesaid 90-year-old venerable music educational institution has produced some of Japan’s most acclaimed classical music stars, such as composer Masamichi Amano and composer and conductor Ahn Eak-tai, as well as jazz pianist Yōsuke Yamashita.
Over the years, I have heard various top European jazz artists surmise that coming from outside the US offers them more room to maneuver, as the art form is not their “national music.” As far as Umezu is concerned, geography is not an issue.
“I don’t care if I’m Japanese or a citizen of anywhere. But I’m grateful that I can listen to many kinds of music and not be dominated by any kind of music genre,” he says.
The reedman’s artistic consciousness has continued to morph over the years, and he says he is looking forward to his open-ended musical future.
“I started to play classical music, and then improvisation, jazz, rock and klezmer, and then some Latin music or some types of folk songs, like Japanese, Korean, Okinawa or others. I have an interest in progressive rock now. [Guitarist Natsuki] Kido is a kind of specialist at it. I don’t know if I will change or not about my music. But I’m still interested about many types of music that I’ve never heard,” he says.
Over the years, Umezu has fed off various inspirational sources, such as US experimental jazz and rock cellist-composer Tom Cora.
“Tom was the best improviser ever, and the best musical friend for me, and even a kind of a teacher. I had so many things to play with him. He made me so free, always,” he says.
Unbridled ethos notwithstanding, Umezu generally has a good idea of where a gig will go before he takes the bandstand.
“It depends on the time and the situation,” he says. “When I play with the band, I want to know what will happen as much as possible. But we enjoy [it] if something happens and things change.”
Then again, if laissez-faire is the order of the day, Umezu will just let rip.
“If I play as improvisation, I don’t want to know anything about [what] will happen,” he says.
Kazutoki Umezu will perform on September 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 560- 5084 and http://www.levontin7.com/