Improvised Music from Japan / Kazuo Imai


Guitar, viola da gamba (replica) and electronics

Born in Kawasaki, Kanagawa prefecture, September 24, 1955

Kazuo Imai creates unique and powerful free improvised music, combining his excellent technique with the passion of free jazz, and the textures of ethnic and avant-garde classical genres. His principal instrument is the guitar--both acoustic and electric--and he uses various techniques to play it: fingering; picking; hitting and scratching the strings with a pick, or one or both hands; bowing; placing sticks under the strings; and using effectors. In addition to guitar, Imai plays the viola da gamba (replica) and live electronics in his performances. He succeeds in conveying his musical world to his listeners with remarkably high degrees of abstraction, density and tension.

In 1968, when Imai was in his first year of junior high school, his uncle gave him a gut guitar--his first musical instrument. Practicing on his own, Imai initially played rock on the electric guitar.

Two years later, a jazz aficionado friend took Imai to Oleo, a jazz cafe (a coffee house where jazz records are played continuously, at high volume). Imai was instantly taken with the music, and started visiting jazz cafes almost daily. Among his favorite music at the time was '60s Coltrane, and late-'60s John McLaughlin with the Miles Davis group and Lifetime.

In September of '72, Imai began studying guitar at the Yamaha Jazz School. After two years, on the recommendation of the guitar instructor, the late Masayuki Takayanagi, Imai quit the Yamaha school and entered Takayanagi's own private school. Soon thereafter, Imai began to work as Takayanagi's assistant, and as such had many opportunities to hear the latter's collective improv group New Direction. These performances had an enormous impact on him.

Imai was very involved not only in jazz (mainly free jazz), but also in ethnic and experimental classical music. This led him to mixed-media sound performer Takehisa Kosugi. The two first met in 1975 at Mato Grosso Gallery in Tokyo, where Kosugi had an exhibition. On Kosugi's suggestion, starting in April of that year Imai attended his workshop at Bigakko (art school) in Kanda, Tokyo. The following March, partly as a workshop graduation presentation, Imai and some of the other students held collective free improvisation concerts called East Bionic Symphonia; and in July they made a recording--Imai's first. Not once during the workshop, concerts or recording did Imai play the guitar; instead, he used a replica viola da gamba (which he happened to come across at that time and plays to this day), ethnic and small instruments, and his own voice. He did this because he was interested in making music without relying on playing skill and technique.

A month after Imai joined the workshop, Kosugi found himself unable to appear in a concert of his own improv band Taj Mahal Travellers, and suggested that Imai take his place. From that time until late 1977, Imai made monthly guest appearances with the band, playing not guitar but a variety of other instruments including viola da gamba and ethnic instruments.

For six months in 1976, during the period in which he was playing with Kosugi's band, Imai also made guest appearances with Takayanagi's group New Direction. Although Takayanagi advised him to play guitar, he chose not to (he performed vocals instead), fearing his style would sound too much like Takayanagi's.

For six months in 1977, Imai worked for drummer YAS-KAZ, who had started the modern dance music production studio Dagakutobo. In '81-'82 he played guitar in guest appearances with the band AXTH, whose leader was the late guitarist Akira Iijima. In April of '83, with Iijima and Kazuki Chiba (bass), Imai formed the band Leaf Well Island--in which he played not guitar, but viola da gamba and other instruments. The group gave few performances, however. In fact, since 1978 Imai had been playing in public less and less, mainly because he worried that he might be merely following the lead of Takayanagi and Kosugi, both highly influential musicians, rather than developing his own musical identity.

Despite the sparseness of his public appearances, Imai continued to take weekly guitar lessons with Takayanagi. The initial phase of lessons consisted of using classical music practice books to learn to play with a pick rather than the fingers. Only the basics, such as scales and arpeggios, were played. After completing the six practice volumes, the student chose a conventional or experimental classical score to play on guitar, using a pick. When that was completed, another score was chosen. Imai finished the practice books in five years, and then played scores. In the last few years he played only the works of J.S. Bach. Finally, in June of '85--thirteen years after he first started taking lessons with Takayanagi--Imai graduated from his private school. He was the one and only graduate in the school's history.

Having withdrawn completely from the live performance scene in 1985, Imai resumed his performance activity in December of '91 when he launched a series of solo concerts called Solo Works. The series continues to this day; the 33th concert was held in March '99.

In addition, he was a member of the bandoneon-guitar-bass trio Tango Moderno (formerly Tokyo Tango) in '96-'98. He also played with alto sax player Lee Konitz ('96), tenor sax player Arthur Doyle ('97), pianist Irene Schweizer ('98), vocalist Lauren Newton, and bassist Barre Phillips ('99) when those musicians visited Japan. In October of '97 Imai organized the concert Marginal Consort, reuniting participants in the 1976 concert East Bionic Symphonia. The four-hour concert consisted entirely of collective free improvisation. He held the second Marginal Consort in September '98.

Last updated: May 6, 1999