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Aki Takase: In The River's Flow

Ian Patterson By

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It is possible to express political, demographic and architectural phenomena through music, particularly if it is absolutely essential and born from necessity, as it was for great musicians like Max Roach and Charles Mingus —Aki Takase
After forty plus years of recording and touring Aki Takase could be forgiven for easing up a little, for pulling back on the reins. Instead, the Japanese pianist/composer's creative fire is burning as strongly as ever. Since turning seventy in 2018, Takase has released five albums—four in 2019 alone. This output of creative energy showcases the pianist's versatility and a broad-minded approach to music making.

DITZNERs Carte Blanche—Live at Enjoy Jazz Festival 2017 (fixcel, 2018) captures Takase in a purely improvised setting, in the company of Silke Eberhard, Sebastian Gramms and Erwin Ditzner. Hokusai (Intackt Records, 2019), a largely solo piano outing—with one track apiece recorded with Alexander von Schlippenbach and Yoko Tawada —was inspired by the paintings of Japanese artist Katushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Several of the tracks were recorded live during the award ceremony when Takase received The Berlin Jazz Prize in 2018.

Then there is a brace of duo outings: Fifty Fifty (Trouble in the East Records, 2019), sees Takase team up with clarinetist Rudi Mahall; Kasumi (Intakt Records, 2019) pitches Takase with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Perhaps the most interesting of the quintet of recent releases, however, is Thema Prima (BCM, 2019), a vibrant studio recording that marks the first steps of her exciting new group, Japanic.

Thema Prima is a thrilling mixture of jazz and hip-hop, of tight-knit composition and free-wheeling improvisation. If there is a common denominator to the ten tracks on Thema Prima, it's the tremendous energy that courses through the music. "Most of the energy is coming from mental power and self-belief," explains Takase. "I wanted to use those energies to express myself and to find a new musical perspective for the group." Joining Takase are double bassist Johannes Fink, tenor saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen and DJ Illvibe on turntables and electronics. "I had an idea to form a new group some years ago and there were several sounds in my imagination before we rehearsed. I thought about the musicians' potential ability, and how I would write an arrangement of my composition for them."

Thema Prima is Takase's first release on the BCM Records. "I have played concerts before at the Budapest Music Centre, but it is my first CD on the BCM label. It was the right time and the right place. We spent five days at the Budapest music Centre last summer. It's a beautiful place and the food is marvelous. It was a very good time. I have nice memories of that place."

The five pieces of the jigsaw fell into place remarkably smoothly. "In the studio we just needed to concentrate our minds to play together," says Takase. "It's important to have teamwork that feels and reacts to what is happening." On tracks like "Traffic Jam" and "Monday in Budapest" the heady, chaotic sounds of the city permeate the music, though Takase's take on the source of her inspiration is typically personal. " I don't think the urban environment has a direct impact on my music," says the pianist, who has lived in Berlin since 1989.

"Berlin has changed a lot since 1989, but I don't think that my music has much changed because of that. I'm interested in a changing city, yes, but I don't think my music is connected to it. Of course, it's stimulating for me living in a big city, but I wanted to make a sound that evoked something moving, bumping and stopping at the same time. It's like a cell division where various substances collide," Takase explains.

"It is possible to express political, demographic and architectural phenomena through music," Takase expands, "particularly if it is absolutely essential and born from necessity, as it was for great musicians like Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Their music in those days was the inevitable result of their resistance, and of their desire for liberty. I am very proud of them!"

Takase recognizes that her own inspirations are quite distinct, though not entirely unrelated. "As a Japanese musician I just want to keep on playing music. For me, this is the best form of quiet resistance to discrimination. I want my music to be a form of human praise, something that protects the dignity of the earth and human beings. Music, sometimes, can express more than words."

On Thema Prima DJ Illvibe unleashes a torrent of indeterminate urban sounds—honking horns, pneumatic drills, sirens—they are all somehow suggested by the brilliantly inventive musician, who apart from being Takase's stepson, has also played with her and his father Alexander von Schlippenbach in the band Lok.03 for over fifteen years. "He is the one in the band with most freedom. I deliberately didn't write too many notes for him. I just give a hint to him about my imaginary lines. He had to decide how to work from moment to moment in the tunes," says Takase.

"My interest is in making a bridge between composition and improvisation. It's also about weaving musical ideas together, where different musical tempos and rhythms occur in parallel. In that sense the turntable counts as an instrument just the same as the other instruments." The sound effects suggest that there was a lot of post-production work in the studio, but Takase dismisses the notion. "There were no overdubs in the studio. We just played together the same as any live concerts."

Two tracks are indebted to the composer Conlon Nancarrow, (1912-1997), the visionary composer who applied his notion of scales of tempi to automated pianos, resulting in dizzyingly fast playing that is, as yet, far beyond human capabilities. "Conlon Nancarrow is one of my favorite composers and I was inspired especially by his Studies for Player Piano," Takase says. "I thought it was a sensational idea of his to use mechanical machines so he could create unbelievable tempo and speed! I like many dimensions and his compositions are like a busy junction, an intersection of different tempos and rhythms."

Periodically, throughout her career, Takase has paid recorded tributes to some of the historical greats of jazz, such as Eric Dolphy, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman. On Thema Prima the track "Madam Bum Bum" acknowledges the stride piano tradition of Willie "The Lion" Smith and Fats Waller. For Takase, the different branches of jazz are all part of the same organic system.

"We are living not in the past, not in the future. We are living now," affirms Takase. "But knowing the history of jazz is very important for me as a musician in the here and now. I think that new music is born from knowing the history of music that has existed until now. It is important to understand the main developments in music. There is a future ahead of the river, and there is a past before the river flows. So, we are on the same river."

Takase started her journey in Japan in the 1970s. It was an exciting time for jazz in Japan, with the free-jazz pioneers of the 1960s paving the way for a new generation of free-thinking Japanese musicians in the 1970s, many of whom gradually steered away from American jazz influences in favor a more personal language, one that embraced other musical genres.

The story of modern jazz in Japan and its connection to the wider avant-garde arts scenes is a fascinating one. Its tale of musical revolution reflected wider socio-political change in Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. One of the great chroniclers of jazz in Japan from the 1960s well into the 2000s was Soejima Teruto, who Takase knew well.

Jazz journalist, curator and promoter of jazz, Soejima's recollections were recorded in Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History, originally published in 2002. It wasn't until 2019, however, that the first English translation appeared, thanks to Public Bath Press. "Soejima was one of the most important jazz critics and journalists in Japan. He especially loved free jazz," says Takase.

"When I started to listen to jazz, I sometimes heard [drummer/percussionist] Masahiko Togashi, [pianist] Masahiko Sato, [drummer] Takeo Moriyama, [pianist] Yosuke Yamashita, [saxophonist] Akira Sakata and [guitarist] Masayuki Takayanagi at Pit Inn in Tokyo. I believe that these were the best musicians in Japan at the time, and some are still very active today. Their music was at the forefront of free jazz, though as Evan Parker once said, all jazz is free!"

While a student at university, a classmate would take Takase to a jazz café to listen to records of musicians like Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy. "Even though I knew so little about jazz at that time I still thought I might be able to play jazz. It was so fresh and had such an attractive sound for me. It was really a stimulant like drugs," Takase recalls.

"Yamashita's trio in particular had an explosive impact and I am still big fan of Takayanagi as a great innovator," Takase acknowledges. Some years later I took a piano lesson from Yosuke Yamashita, and slowly I got to know some of the great jazz musicians in Japan. I was fascinated by their sometimes shocking and innovative ideas and by their explosive energy."

Innovation and explosive energy are two characteristics of Takase's music. It was inevitable that Takase would eventually come onto the radar of Soejima Teruto. "He spoke enthusiastically to me about the jazz festivals in Europe and we became friends," Takase relates. "It was the beginning of the '80s, when I was invited to play at Berlin Jazz Festival, in 1981. After that I toured Europe almost every year and I would meet Soejima at different festivals in both Europe and Japan."

In her late thirties Takase married Alexander von Schlippenbach, who would also become an important musical partner for Takase. "After that, Alex and I were often together with Soejima in Berlin and Japan. In 1996 we brought our Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra to Japan for a tour and we spent some good time together with Soejima."

Takase, however, doesn't spend too much time dwelling in the past. Since her recording debut as leader in the late 1970s, the pianist has rolled from one exciting collaboration to another, working with Japanese, European and American musicians in a wide array of contexts, from solo and duo to small ensembles. Nor is Takase one to idle in her comfort zone. She has worked with dancer Yui Kawaguchi, with poets and visual artists. At the beginning of 2019, at the Japanese-German Center, Berlin, the pianist tackled the music from George Bizet's opera Carmen, with mezzosoprano Mayumi Nakamura and saxophonist Daniel Erdmann.

Currently, Takase is working on compositions for a large ensemble concert and recording. For Takase, the river uniting past with present and future—and jazz with other artistic tributaries—flows on. There is no shortage of projects, though the Japanic band that recorded Thema Prima clearly excites her.

"I am going to play with the Japanic band as much as possible and as well as possible. I'm also thinking of making a second album with these guys. The chemistry is right. There is good communication, but they are also strong individuals with the space to express themselves. A new group is like a new family," Takase says, "and the important thing is that we are making music together."

Photo: Courtesy of Kriszitina Csendes
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