Improvised Music from Japan

Bass Duo: At the End of a Journey

by Yoshiyuki Kitazato

(Liner Notes of the CD Joëlle et Tetsu: Live at Yokohama Jazz Promenade Festival 1996)

In recent years Joëlle Léandre has been very active musically in both Europe and North America. Numerous albums featuring Léandre have appeared on several labels: her solo recording No Comment, on the Red Toucan label (Canada); No try No Fail, on Hat Hut Records (Switzerland), which includes her performances with Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor sax) and Fritz Hauser (drums); Moments--the latest release of the Canvas Trio, with Carlos Zingaro (violin) and Rudiger Carl (clarinet and accordion)--on the U.S. west coast label Music and Arts; and No Waiting, a duo album with Derek Bailey, on the new French label Potlatch. In addition to recording, Léandre organizes improvisation workshop in various parts of the world; and coordinates the transnational trio Les Diaboliques with her longtime "comrades," pianist Irène Schweizer (Switzerland) and vocalist Maggie Nicols (Great Britain). Recently Léandre has been playing duos with vocalist Lauren Newton, who until 1990 was the only female member of the Vienna Art Orchestra. Joining forces with these other female improvisers has contributed to Léandre's musical empowerment. Making a duo album with Tetsu Saitoh will surely be an important step in expanding her musical world to Asia.

On October 13, 1996, Léandre and Saitoh played as a duo at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall, during the two-day Yokohama Jazz Promenade. This annual festival (which began in 1993 as part of a regional promotion, subsidized by the Yokohama municipal government) turns the entire city into a musical "promenade" where numerous performances are held at the same time in various existing concert halls and clubs. Each year the festival features many Japanese musicians, as well as non-Japanese artists with whom they have strong ties. Saitoh is closely connected to the Promenade, having played there several years in a row. In '96, his appearance with Léandre was the final second-day performance at the hall.

A huge painting ten meters in both length and width was hung behind the stage on which the duo played. Quantities of blue petals entirely cover the canvas, blowing out from its depths like rough seas driven by strong winds. The petals flutter crazily, writhe feverishly, and beckon viewers into the depths of the painting. Rieko Koyama, the artist who painted this compelling picture, has a close working relationship with Saitoh. The two have collaborated on several projects: Saitoh has played at galleries exhibiting Koyama's paintings, and used her works for his CD cover. The Joëlle Léandre Invitational Committee (of which Saitoh is a member) realized their dreams of creating an intergenre space where Léandre would collaborate with artists--mainly female artists--working in different artistic fields; and creating a network among Léandre, the other artists, and themselves. Léandre's performance in Yokohama was the final appearance of her Japanese tour, which lasted for 20 days starting in late September. The two bassists were about to be released from the arduous schedule and the various practical and emotional hardships of the tour, and throughout this final performance their feelings of happiness resounded as joyfully as a bell. This album includes all of the works that they performed at the Yokohama Jazz Promenade concert, in the order in which they were played--with the exception of the last piece, which has been omitted. In this piece, Léandre dragged her bass behind her on leaving the stage, as if she were walking a dog (perhaps thinking of her pet dog in France).

Saitoh and Léandre met at the Avignon International Double Bass Festival in 1994, a year when Saitoh had two European tours. It was then that the planning began for Léandre's 1996 Japanese tour. Noting Barre Phillips' tremendous effort and energy as the musical director of the Avignon festival, Saitoh felt he wanted to organize an event for the double bass. When Léandre told him three times, "I wanted to visit Japan," it was decided. The decision was influenced partly by the fact that, in addition to being a bassist, Léandre is a woman. The idea that womanhood can be relied on, in place of musical themes, to bring about the recovery of a life force in music--this is nothing but the sentimental illusion of men. It can't be denied, however, that for better or worse, the Léandre Invitational Committee placed their hopes on womanhood as a key element in recovering the fundamental differences which would enable the musicians, actresses, dancers, painters, and calligrapher to "converse"--one of the original characteristics of improvisation--and in realizing true (rather than superficial) cultural exchange among them. To organize Léandre's tour, Saitoh formed a team made up of himself and two music critics--Keiichi Fukushima and this writer. We three were amateurs in terms of tour coordination for overseas musicians, but during the year of preparation we did all we could--had meetings (which tended to consist mainly of useless talk), arranged schedules, developed human networks, raised money, quarreled, wrote magazine articles, held talks, appeared on radio programs, and carried bags--to make Léandre's first Japanese tour a success.

Saitoh, whom Léandre came to call "brother" after the tour, is one of the most gifted Japanese improvisers. His musical interests range well beyond free improvisation, to traditional Japanese and experimental classical music, as well as Argentine tango (which he came to appreciate through the work of Astor Piazzola and Osvaldo Pugliese) and the music of Korean shamans such as Kim Suk-Chul. Saitoh's intuition and energy, which enable him to become absorbed in the pursuit of the best possible sounds, are second to none. His musical diversity is fully revealed in this album. Now, with postmodernism a well-established concept, it is certainly not uncommon for musicians to have highly varied musical pursuits--and this approach has been quite widely accepted. What makes Saitoh so excellent is that rather than regard music merely as information, he attempts to feel and understand everything about it through his encounters with people involved in music. Although his multifaceted music may change from one moment to the next, it retains its unique identity--which is enriched by his many encounters with people--under the motto, "The rule is to play together." He does not perform with great musicians in order to gain status; rather, each of his collaborations is for him a decisive musical event. Saitoh has recently formed a close connection with Asian music critic Junichi Morita, who released on his own label Saitoh's recording of the music of Piazzolla featuring bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu; and an album influenced by shimauta, the unique folk songs of the Ryukyu islands--in which Saitoh's bass seems to hover in the air around this musical tradition.

Both of these bouble bass players are following their own unique paths. This album, created through their encounter with one another, seems to catch an instant when free improvisation is still an event. As Léandre says, "The improviser is the last romantic"--and we, musicians and listeners, will forever dream of witnessing the moment when music lets out its first cry.

English translation by Yoshiyuki Suzuki and Cathy Fishman