Improvised Music from Japan / Masahiko Kono

Essay by Masahiko Kono

The following are excerpts from "Brass Experiments in New York" (written by Masahiko Kono), published in Japanese in Jazz Hihyo(Jazz Critique) quarterly magazine, No. 74 (1992, first issue). The English translation is by Yuko Otomo.

In 1976 I changed my instrument from trumpet to trombone. In those days, I listened to Paul Rutherford, George Lewis, and Roswell Rudd. Rutherford's solo speed made it very difficult to reach his level, but I wanted the quality of the sound produced by him, Derek Bailey, and Erik Dolphy. I used to visit Toshinori Kondo quite often to practice with him. We used to go up the hill in the neighborhood together. We mainly did long-tone practice. I tried to blow sounds as straight as possible, to aim at the faraway hills. One time, when cicadas flocked together singing loud in the school baseball field nearby, we blew as hard as possible to target them. When the practice was over we bowed to thank the cicadas. Soon I started doing some performances with Evolution Ensemble Unity (EEU) and young musicians.

I was still obsessively thinking, "How can I create my own sounds in an ensemble setting? What is my identity?" Paul Rutherford, George Lewis, and Toshinori Kondo, these musicians all have their own individual sounds, full of their unique individual histories. All I had was power, the rest was still totally underdeveloped. In other words, I was struggling as a Japanese to absorb and learn from both European classical traditions and the fruits of American jazz.

In the fall of 1980, I visited New York City for the first time. I felt so easy playing trombone. In Japan I somehow had to force myself, to smash unfitted feelings, to make sounds music. I didn't have to go through any of that in New York. It could have been because of the jet lag, but something about the different climate and cultural environment made it easy for me to play my instrument. I still remember how happy and contented I was: I felt like a baby in a mother's arms. During this visit I had the chance to play with Milford Graves. Later I received a wonderful compliment from Bill Dixon, who happened to listen to the tape of the performance. I also had a few more performances during the three months I stayed.

In the summer of 1983, I visited New York again, and since then I have lived here. That summer there were many wonderful performances all around the city. Craig Harris performed powerfully at Sweet Basil. Ray Anderson expressed himself with amazing technique. Butch Morris conducted the David Murray Big Band, with Wynton Marsalis and Craig Harris as band members. Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago was dynamic--I still remember how shiny his old trumpet looked. It looked brand new, although I heard that he had been playing it for more than ten years. I was extremely impressed by the weight of the live performance, which I had never gotten listening to records alone in Japan. That same summer, the FMP Orchestra visited New York City as part of its world tour. Toshinori Kondo was with it, and Paul Rutherford, Gunter Christmann, Albert Manglesdorf, and George Lewis formed the orchestra's amazing trombone section. Rutherford's clear, straight sounds were very impressive.

In the winter of 1984 I had a lesson from James Knepper, whom I met through Borah Bergman. It was a very cold day. I took a ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island, then a bus to a small house standing on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. Jim Knepper greeted me, served me tea, then said: "I don't usually give lessons to anyone. Today is very special." Then he suggested I play my instrument. When I started, he took out his own trombone and played with me. For about three hours he gave me fundamental lessons based on Bach and the long-tone method. Spending a whole day with his deep warm sounds, I felt both a strange tension and a certain relaxation, as if I were soaking in a hot spring. I thanked him and gave him a record I made with Katsuo Itabashi (piano) in Japan. Outside it was dark and freezing.

George Lewis is a musician who can create rich sounds and tones particular to the trombone. In the fall of 1987, Arto Lindsay and John Zorn produced a music festival at The Kichen. On the second day of the festival George and I did an improvisational duet. We expressed our ideas throughout the performance, more as an ensemble on the edge than as a battle. His round, thick tone transformed into various shapes. I changed mine with sharpness. Walk, stop, run, wait and chase... We experimented as much as we could, and the audience's reaction was great. I was happy feeling Lewis's will creating his own sounds close to me in the midst of improvisation. Using jazz as his base, Lewis manages to go in and out of it. My impression then was that he was trying to fly out beyond the horizon of the so-called European New Music tradition.

Since 1985 I have been a member of the big band called Jus Grew Orchestra, led and conducted by Jemeel Moondoc. The first two years we played mainly in an alternative space called Neither/Nor, in the East Village. Poets, musicians, dancers, and artists frequented the Neither/Nor--though some of them are dead now. Butch Morris often showed up in his marvelous outfit, performing miraculous conductings. Roy Campbell (trumpet) and Alex Lodico (trombone) were in the brass section.

Although I did not discuss their influence on me in this article, through meeting and playing with musicians such as Derek Bailey, Takehisa Kosugi, and Shoji Hano, I've learned to let my stiffness toward ideas about identity and musical style melt away little by little. As that stiffness disappears, a silence increases in which everything starts to emanate its original life force. Beyond that silence, something which is often ignored as nothing starts to breathe itself in a full sense. I intend to create and play music from beyond that silence. That is the goal of my next experiment.

Last updated: August 16, 1996