Christian Jacob: On Respect and Knowledge of Jazz in Japan

Wayne Zade By

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Christian Jacob was born in Lorraine, France, and began classical piano studies at the age of four. His early musical influences included Debussy and Ravel, as well as Oscar Peterson, whose approaches to improvisation impressed him the most.
Having won First Prize in a piano competition at the Paris Conservatory, Jacob studied and then later taught at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Maynard Ferguson played an important role early in Jacob's career, giving the pianist a job in his band and producing his first two records on the Concord label—Maynard Ferguson Presents Christian Jacob (1997) and Time Lines (1999). His professional associations multiplied quickly in stints with Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, Randy Brecker, Miroslav Vitous, and Bill Holman, among others.
In the mid-'90s, Jacob teamed up with vocalist Tierney Sutton, bassist Trey Henry, and drummer Ray Brinker in the Tierney Sutton Band. Over 15 years, they have recorded seven critically acclaimed CDs for Telarc Jazz. In 2004 and 2006, respectively, Jacob released two albums on his own independent label, Wilder Jazz: Styne and Mine, a tribute to the music of Jule Styne, and Contradictions, which pays homage to his friend the late pianist Michel Petrucciani, followed by Live in Japan, released in 2008.
All About Jazz: Can you remember the first time you went to Japan to play?

Christian Jacob: Yes, the very first time was around 1986. I was at Berklee College of Music, and I went with vibraphonist Gary Burton and a group called the Berklee All-Stars. Berklee was trying to do Berklee in Japan, and that was I believe even the first year in which they were actually going over and trying to do some classes in Japan. Wait, I graduated in 1986, so maybe this was 1987 because then I was a teacher at Berklee; as soon as I graduated, I taught at Berklee, until 1989.

So I went with Gary, and we did some teaching there, plus the group with which we played concerts. This was in Hamamatsu, which is a fairly small town, not a big city. But then we played some concerts and toured around.

I have come back many times to Japan, but that was my first visit. And I remember being excited! At that point in my life, I had traveled quite a bit; but I had never gone to Japan, and it was my wish to do so.

AAJ: So, what was it about Japan? Were you just curious? Was it the country itself and the culture, or the music scene there?

CJ: Oh, more about the people and the country. It's interesting that you bring this up. I had no particular interest in the music there. You know, basically, the way that I came to America was the same way. When I was in France, and I was young, I wanted to go to America so much! The people, the country, the buildings. It was a different culture.

AAJ Travel is a great education.

CJ: Right. The same thing for me in Japan. Interesting culture, buildings. I'm not, you know, an historian, or scholar. It was for me just the attraction of a new country.

AAJ From Gary Burton, had you heard about Japan? Did he talk about his travels there?

CJ: Maybe he did talk, yes. He must have told me about concerts he had played. Just in conversation. Between musicians we always trade notes and information: "Oh, the last time I played in Berlin," things like that. Now I'm remembering. At one concert, he needed something. Maybe it was a different monitor, another monitor. And the promoters were like "Oh, yes, oh, yes," but they didn't have one or couldn't get one. Or maybe he needed to change the time of something? And they were like, "Oh, yes, oh yes," but they couldn't or wouldn't do it. So there was this surface, external impression.

AAJ: Politeness?

CJ: Yeah, big politeness. But they couldn't or wouldn't budge about what he wanted. I forget exactly what it was.

AAJ: When you read about Japan, or the culture, you have an awareness of the distinction between "outside" and "inside." There are certain externals that have to be observed, but the people might be thinking something very different.

CJ: Oh, I noticed this later too, and I understand this exactly now. So this was a concert story from Gary, and he was just saying how funny it was to him. It seemed very Japanese.

Later, my story in this vein had to do with a big band I came over to Japan to play with. Trumpeter Carl Saunders was in the band, it was led by a drummer from Los Angeles, Frank Capp. We arrived, and we had the bus. We're at the bus, and I hadn't had time to use the restroom. We take off, and I say to the tour manager that we'd have to stop along the way so I could use the restroom. So he starts studying his papers, shuffling his papers, and panicking because this isn't on the schedule. And he said, finally, "Yes, yes, OK." But I felt like it was made to be such a big deal.

AAJ: There's such a high emphasis on conformity, or maybe structure, and yet many Japanese love jazz because it's spontaneous, and that's a side of their culture that they can't always feel comfortable with. But they can find it in the music.

CJ: I think that's true. That's a good way to put it.

Christian Jacob Trio, from left: Ray Brinker, Christian Jacob, Trey Henry

AAJ: Have you played mostly in Tokyo, or all over Japan?

CJ: Basically, all over, yeah. Hamamatsu was first. And I even came back with Berklee one or two times after that. I came again with Maynard Ferguson. I wasn't in his band anymore, but he had a tour in Japan and he needed a pianist and called me. I just did that tour then, in the late '90s—'98, maybe. And then I came back with Frank Capp's band.

Next I was contacted by a Japanese guy who had heard one of my recordings about a project that led to my CD, Live in Japan. So I did go there with the trio, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker, and we recorded that album. After that I went back by myself to do a little solo concert tour to promote the CD.

AAJ: You haven't recorded a solo album yet?

CJ: No. But that could be my next one; it probably will be.

AAJ: Have your Japanese appearances been mainly in clubs or in concert halls, and is the vibe different in each type of venue?

CJ: It's been both, and yeah. The greatest vibe in a club was at Motion Blue, which is part of the Blue Note company of clubs; it is in Yokohama. It is a very attractive club, and has a great piano. And the silence—the attention—in there was more than I had ever experienced. There even was a bar in there, but you couldn't tell. There was a cash register, but it wasn't used or touched until the music was done. It was attention, and respect.

On the other hand, and it was again in Yokohama on a different tour, I played in a big hall because it was a jazz festival, and that was packed and over-packed, people couldn't even sit; they were lined up along the walls. And they were loud—and responsive! So that was also a great experience, but in a different way. So I've experienced both extremes. So it varies, depending on each venue. Even among the clubs, there are differences.

AAJ: When you are in Japan and you are not playing, do you have time to explore, or are you mostly busy traveling?

CJ: You know, the thing is, Japanese tours are usually very, very tight. Usually there is a Japanese person putting it together, which has been true in my experience. You don't have time to go off much.

AAJ Like clockwork.

CJ: Sometimes if they have a day off, they will usually schedule a visit to a temple, or shrine, something that might be of cultural interest. But usually the musicians on tour don't have much time. Each time I've been to Japan, I did go to see temples, or the stone gardens. But on quite a few tours I just didn't have time.

AAJ: Do you like the food of Japan?

CJ: Yes; well, I love sushi, so I have that, and I try different things over there too. But I don't know; after being there a long time and eating the food there, my body is not reacting too well. There's like a lack of something, and when I back to the States, I get better. But I do love the food there.

AAJ: Do you think it's the traveling that takes a toll too?

CJ: Well, they have, always, rice; it's in the diet. Noodles. I got sick once, and they put me on udon, so that was good, big fat noodles in soup. You can eat them cold too.

AAJ: Have you played mostly with American musicians while in Japan, or with Japanese musicians too?

CJ: On the tour I did solo, there were a couple of gigs where the venue didn't want a solo performer, so I played with a Japanese bassist, once just the two of us, and another time there was a drummer but a different bassist, so a trio.

AAJ: Did you think those guys were pretty good?

CJ: Yeah, they were good choices. Actually, they were very good. Not knowing who they were, that was the thing worrying me the most. Oh, and I did another concert in Japan, actually, with yet another bassist, and a different drummer. That was very nice, and those guys were very, very devoted to doing whatever I would ask.

AAJ: Have you recorded for any Japanese labels? Things that might only be available over there or as imports here?

CJ: The closest would be my recording Live in Japan. This project is a co-production. I did release it on my own here in the States, but Yasuo Sangu released it in Japan [on SSJ Records]. So we did the concert in Japan, and we shared the expenses. Also, on the Japanese version, there is a bonus track; he insisted on that.

AAJ: Let's talk especially about the suite of four tunes on this recording that are based on Japanese folk melodies: "Hana" (Spring), "Natsuno Omoide" (Summer), "Akatonbo" (Autumn), "Yukino Furu Machio" (Winter).

CJ: Ah, yes. I'm so proud of this series. I'm so glad I did this because obviously that was a very great hit with the Japanese audiences. The last two times I've been to Japan they all wanted it at every performance. They all wanted to hear, they all loved it. And that was the idea.

I knew I was going to do a tour in Japan, and I was excited to do this with the trio. That again was related to Yasuo Sangu's interest. He contacted me because he wanted to distribute my first CD, and then to distribute another one also. So we eventually agreed to put a tour together. I wanted to bring Trey and Ray, not because I didn't trust Japanese musicians, but because we are a trio. But of course, the expenses in bringing those guys...

I just knew I wanted to do something special—for the concert, for the tour. It had to be something that would really interest the Japanese people. So I talked around about it, to my wife. And my wife has a friend, a woman of Japanese descent in Los Angeles, Yurika Araki Dennis, and I have thanked her in the album credits. She has two sons, two little kids, and she told me that they were doing a choir program in Los Angeles about Japan, and that they were singing four songs that all Japanese people know. The songs represent the four seasons. So I said, "Oh my God, that's it. If I could just arrange those songs." She had a recording of the choir's songs on You Tube. So I transcribed them from there. I even then went online and found the original melodies. From there I worked on trying to screw with them and make my own arrangements.

AAJ: And the trio was responsive to this?

CJ: Oh, yeah, yeah. They liked the arrangements, and so it was good. Those songs were the big hit of that tour. We ended up going to a club where we didn't have a concert, but a jam session was happening. Suddenly they introduced me, and so I was like, OK, I'll play. Then people began asking for those Japanese songs!

AAJ: Based on your experience in working with Mr. Sangu, do you have the sense that the record business in Japan is similar to the record business in the States—operates in a similar way? Is there anything different, better in Japan?

CJ: To be honest, I don't know. If anything, I'm the opposite of a business guy. I'm not even sure how it works in the States. I deal with it the best I can. I used to be with Concord Records and then, OK, they didn't sell enough—and I'm out. So, I think, what am I doing? I don't want to be running around trying to get signed, to be able to record. So, I decided, I'll just record myself, do it on my own.

AAJ: More and more musicians seem to be doing that.

CJ: It seems to me that Yasuo is working so hard. It's a hard business, I think, over there too. He's trying to make it work. He needs to economize. For me, it's not a money thing for me to go there. I went there because I really wanted to. But I can't do that too often.

AAJ: The economy in Japan has been in trouble too.

CJ: Serious trouble, yes.

AAJ: Yet Japanese fans are famously great record collectors, and autograph seekers.

CJ: The Japanese are so knowledgeable.

AAJ: And records stay in print there. There are such great record stores in Japan. Do you ever shop for records there?

CJ: Yeah, oh yeah, it's ridiculous.

AAJ: Have you had a sense in Japan of how American musicians in other musical fields, such as classical or hip-hop, are regarded? Is American music in general popular there?

CJ: It seems to me that classical music in general is well regarded there. I'm thinking of Makoto Ozone in this sense now. He's a lovely guy, and a good friend of mine. He's doing a classical career now.

AAJ: He's active in teaching music in Japan too, coaching bands in high schools.

CJ: He has a radio program too. He goes back and forth to Japan a lot. His manager is a classical music manager, so Makoto has expanded his range. He just finished a Chopin tour. I really admire him. I did the reverse: I came from classical to jazz.

AAJ: The piano, and piano trios in jazz, seem to have the highest regard in the minds of Japanese jazz audiences. Can you explain this, do you wonder why?

CJ: The piano is like a little orchestra. I'm a pianist—so it makes sense to me! I know why this is not true in the States, though. In the States, the piano, the trio, always has been put into the role of background music. In France, we don't have that sense. We have more the approach that the Japanese have. The piano is like the king's instrument. An orchestra in a box. The piano is one of the instruments on which you need a lot of years.

More than on other instruments. I do believe this. A great pianist puts down much more work than, say, a great trumpeter, maybe not in terms of time, but at least in terms of more varied areas of knowledge that he or she must have.

So, yes, Japan has that—respect, for the piano, and the piano trio in jazz. I mean, they love everything, but the piano, they love the most.

strong>AAJ: There's such interplay, cooperation in the piano trio. It's a little community. And Japanese society is different from American society in this sense; American society is so oriented around the individual.

CJ: I think so, yes.

AAJ: In terms of jazz and the history of jazz, have you noticed in Japan a preference for African-American musicians, in terms of authenticity in the music? Or, is music beyond race?

CJ: I haven't noticed that when I've been in Japan. I would actually say not as much as what I have noticed in the States regarding race and jazz. I may have heard a comment or two among Japanese people about the size of certain black athletes, tall or strong, there might be that awareness. I think the Japanese fans are certainly aware of the history of jazz in the South in America, but for them it's just about the music itself and whoever is playing it well. I've been so impressed with compliments I've received from Japanese jazz fans. They have been so precise and particular in what they like. They just really study and know this music.

AAJ: Can you compare Japanese audiences with European audiences? Do you tour in Europe much now?

CJ: You know, I don't, not much now. There are certain similarities between the two, but European audiences maybe exhibit traits of American and Japanese audiences. In the European audience you're going to have the part of the people who are really listening, and the part of the people who are a little lost, don't know what they are listening to or listening for and are therefore afraid of giving a judgment; and then those people who want to help out with the energy, yelling, "Yeah! Yeah!" There's just a wide range of listeners in Europe. In Japan, the listening is more attentive, analytical, as in classical music. But respect is always the word that comes to my mind about the Japanese. I feel that all the time there.

AAJ: This is not a joke. Did you go to a baseball game in Japan?

CJ: [laughing] No, I didn't go. Being from France, I don't have that American love of the game.

AAJ: "America's national pastime."

CJ: Right.

AAJ: But you've noticed other aspects of American pop culture there. McDonald's? Clothing?

CJ: Sure, sure. Pizza Hut, yeah, yeah. America is still pretty highly regarded in Japan. Absolutely. Like a model or leader.

AAJ: So you've been going to Japan for about 20 years. Have you noticed the country change over time?

CJ: It's hard to say. When I first went, I played more in little towns, and now I play in large cities. It would be hard for me to generalize about the country.

AAJ: When was your most recent visit to play in Japan?

CJ: I just went with the Tierney Sutton Band—our first trip to Japan together. This was in March, 2011. We were at the Cotton Club in Tokyo for two nights, and I was reminded how the Japanese "organization" is just so prepared. Every detail was taken care of, from getting picked up at the airport (by a welcoming host as well as a driver), to meeting the sound crew at the club and the staff in charge of our dressing rooms, replenishing it and guarding it while we played. The concerts had a crystalline and clear sound quality; the silence during the performances was outstanding, as usual. The piano (a Yamaha) was practically brand new and freshly tuned. The autograph signing sessions that followed were attended very respectfully.

But I won't forget this. The second day, we felt a 7.3 earthquake while in our 33rd floor hotel rooms. Little did we know that it actually was a pre-shock that triggered the big 9.0 quake and tsunami two days later. By then, we had already left for Singapore.

AAJ: Have you played elsewhere in Far East Asia?

CJ: Only in Malaysia and Thailand.

AAJ: Were your experiences in those places like those you've had in Japan?

CJ: No. The audiences in Japan are—more focused. And knowledgeable, yes. The attention and the respect I feel from the Japanese listeners are the most important things I have noticed.

Among Japanese musicians, once again, I would say that over there I met some with the least amount of ego I've ever met, but also one the most. When you work with other musicians in jazz, there must be a certain sharing. But sometimes it can become a little fight. One guy insists on doing something his way. As a French musician, that was always kind of my problem, and that's why I wanted to come to the States. To me many French musicians had too much ego. Before telling what you're going to do, ask me what I need, and then we can discuss.

In Japan in general I thought the musicians were very open to doing what they need to do. And a few have a very big ego about what they can do. I met a particular bassist over there who had a certain reputation, recognition, and he was aware of that and wanted to maintain that. Working with him was a little touchy. But as I said, I also met some of the most dedicated and selfless players. Sometimes that's not good either, though, because they don't give enough. You want a contribution from everyone.

Selected Discography

Tierney Sutton, Desire (Telarc, 2009)
Christian Jacob Trio, Live in Japan (Wilder Jazz, 2008)
Tierney Sutton, On the Other Side (Telarc, 2007)
Bill Hollman Band, Hommage (Jazzed Media, 2007)
Christian Jacob, Contradictions (Wilder Jazz, 2006)
Tierney Sutton,
I'm With the Band (Telarc, 2005)
Tierney Sutton, Dancing in the Dark (Telarc, 2005)
Phil Woods, Groovin' to Marty Paich (Jazzed Media, 2005)
Christian Jacob, Styne & Mine (Wilder Jazz, 2004)
Tierney Sutton, Something Cool (Telarc, 2002)
Tierney Sutton, Blue in Green (Telarc, 2001)
Flora Purim, Perpetual Motion (Narada, 2001)
Tierney Sutton, Unsung Heroes (Telarc, 2000)
Christian Jacob, Time Lines (Concord, 1999)
Christian Jacob, Maynard Ferguson Presents Christian Jacob (Concord, 1998)
Tierney Sutton, Introducing Tierney Sutton (Telarc, 1998)

Photo Credits
Page 2: Tsuyoshi Horikoshi
All Other Photos: Michael Gottlieb

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