Improvised Music from Japan / Tetsu Saitoh


Double bass player, composer, and arranger

Tetsu Saitoh was born October 27, 1955 in Tokyo, Japan. He began playing the bass when he was 22. He taught himself initially, but soon began studying with bassists Keizo Mizoiri (his former high school classmate) and Nobuyoshi Ino (to whom Mizoiri had introduced him). At that time Saitoh practiced in the daytime at Gaya, an art gallery and live music club in his neighborhood. Gaya's owner liked his playing and asked him to perform on stage in the evening. Thus Saitoh began playing free jazz before an audience about twice a month, with such musicians as alto sax player Kazutoki Umezu, pianist Yoriyuki Harada, baritone sax player Shoji Ukaji, and pianist Katsuyuki Itakura, all of whom played regularly at Gaya. In the early '80s, Saitoh was also a member of Kuchu Sampo (Walk in the Cosmos), a collaborative group of artists, musicians and dancers. After Gaya closed its doors in 1984, he joined percussionist Masahiko Togashi's group, where he spent six months before moving to the group led by guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi. In May of 1986, Saitoh recorded his first album, the unaccompanied solo effort Tokio Tango.

Saitoh began two important musical activities in 1986: the playing of tango music, and the musical directorship of the theater group TAO. It was on the advice of cellist Keiki Midorikawa that Saitoh started playing tango. In the same year he joined a tango orchestra, as a bassist and arranger, and had the opportunity to play with Osvaldo Pugliese when the orchestra performed in Buenos Aires. Having long been fascinated by the music of Astor Piazzolla, Saitoh formed a group in 1989 to play Piazzolla's music, and in February 1990 they recorded Tetsu Plays Piazzolla. Since then he has occasionally organized groups for the purpose of playing Piazzolla's music. His current group, started in 1995, is called Contrabajeando and consists of two or three double basses, a bandoneon, and a piano.

Sahara, an original play performed before the public in October 1986, was the first production by the theater group TAO for which Saitoh directed the musical composition, arrangement, and performance. He has since served as musical director on all of TAO's productions, including Garcia Lorca's Black Pudding (performed in 1987); the three-part White-Whiskered Lear, based on Shakespeare (Part I performed in 1989, Part II in 1991, and Part III in 1993); Media Machine and Hamlet Machine, both based on works by Heiner Müllar and performed in 1991; andLa Danaide performed in1996.

In addition, Saitoh has cultivated collaborations with Japanese traditional instrumentalists, as well as with Korean musicians and dancers. In 1990 he established the String Quartet of Tokio with 17-string koto player Hideaki Kuribayashi, tsugaru samisen player Michihiro Satoh, and guitarist Koichi Hiroki. That year they recorded part of the CD The String Quartet of Tokio & Orchestra. Soon thereafter Saitoh expanded the String Quartet into an 11-piece orchestra which included such Japanese traditional instruments as 17-string koto, tsugaru samisen, sho, hichikiri, and biwa, and this expanded group completed the CD, which was released in 1992. In 1991 Saitoh organized a group called Blue Poles of Lear for the performance of TAO's White-Whiskered Lear, Part II. The group consisted of Saitoh on bass, and seven koto players on a total of 15 standard and 17-string kotos. After the play, Saitoh kept the group together and in 1991 recorded Blue Poles of Lear with eight koto players. (The final piece was recorded in January of 1992, with guitarist Koichi Hiroki joining the group.) The CD was released in 1992.

In May of '92, Saitoh and saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu traveled to Chin-do and Seoul for a recording with Korean shamans who play traditional Korean instruments. (Umezu's CD Shin Myong, released in 1993, includes a piece recorded with Saitoh at that time.) It was on this recording tour that Saitoh first met and played music with Korean shaman Kim Suk Chul, whose musical style and ideas continue to make a strong impact on him. Soon after that, Saitoh arranged a concert to bring together Japanese and Korean musicians. The first Eurasian Echoes concert was performed in Tokyo over a three-day period in July of 1992. Saitoh played bass, and conducted a 14-piece orchestra--made up of a bass, an oboe, a guitar, and Japanese and Korean traditional instruments--which played his original compositions. Saitoh also went to Korea with Fumio Itabashi and Kazue Sawai for the Eurasian Echoes concerts performed in Seoul in June 1993 and June 1994. (A Mongolian musician participated in the 1994 concert.) The recording of one of the 1993 concerts was released that year as a CD entitled Eurasian Echoes. Two studio recordings made in Seoul at the same time were also released as CDs entitled Unicorn and Session. A CD of the 1994 concerts has just come out. Saitoh also went to Korea in December of 1992 to play in a modern dance performance, and to make a studio recording with Kim Suk Chul and other Korean shamans. The CDs of this recording are Shin Myong (same pronunciation as the Umezu CD cited above, but different Chinese characters), and Salp'uli, released in 1993 and '94, respectively. Saitoh remained in Korea following the Eurasian Echoes concert in June of '94, to make a recording with Korean shamans from Chin-do. (The recording has not yet been released).

Also in 1994, Saitoh performed in the West for the first time since his 1988 tour of North America with a free jazz trio made up of himself, baritone sax player Shoji Ukaji and drummer Sabu Toyozumi. In February of '94, Saitoh, Kazue Sawai and other musicians gave two concerts at the University of Hawaii, mainly to present the music of traditional Japanese instruments. In May, Saitoh and Sawai went to Europe to form a group called Fifth Season with bassist Barre Phillips, percussionist Alain Joule, and soprano sax player Michel Doneda. The group toured France, Belgium and Switzerland. For their studio recordings in France and Switzerland (not yet out) and Swiss tour, they were joined by two Swiss musicians, cellist Martin Schultz and violinist Hans Burgener. In August Saitoh traveled to France once again, to participate in the Avignon International Contrabass Festival, directed by Barre Phillips. In November of 1994, Saitoh went on an Asian tour in Korea, Laos and Thailand with the Tsuki no Tsubo trio (made up of himself, Itabashi and Sawai) and guitarist Koichi Hiroki. At some of the performances in Laos and Thailand, residents (children included) joined the group and sang local songs.

Saitoh's recent composition "Stone Out," commissioned by the koto group KOTO-VORTEX, was performed for the first time by the group in April of 1995. In September Saitoh went to Warsaw, Poland, for a music and dance performance at the large-scale retrospective exhibition of works by artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. In November he visited France and, with Michel Doneda and Alain Joule, formed the trio ARC (The name was later changed to L'ARC ET LE PUITS.). In the course of their tour of France, the trio made a recording with the participation of vocalist Antonella Talamonti. In December Saitoh and KOTO-VORTEX recorded Stone Out, which was released in April of this year.

Last updated: April 1996