Koichi Makigami Presents His Unique Musical Vision In The Stone

Eyal Hareuveni By

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At the end of October, Japanese vocal artist extraordinaire Koichi Makigami celebrates his unique, eclectic and often eccentric art during a week long residence at The Stone club in New York. Makigami will play with old comrades and some newer, like-minded musicians in a rare opportunity to present his band Hikashu in a different setting.

In this interview Makigami speaks about the upcoming residence, Hikashu, his ongoing affiliation with John Zorn, founder of The Stone and the Tzadik label, and plans for the future. The interview was conducted through the kind assistance of Nori from the Hikashu Appreciation Society.

The Stone Residency

All About Jazz: How did the idea of a residency in The Stone get started?

Koichi Makigami: It was about a year ago. John Zorn offered me the idea and I took it. Actually, it's the second time for me. In 2006, I did the residency week at the same venue and it was the first time that my band Hikashu ever played in New York, but not in a full line-up. We did it as a quartet because the pianist, Shimizu Kazuto, couldn't make it.

AAJ: So Zorn gave you plenty of time to think about the line-up?

KM: Yes. Actually, it took time. It was very hard for me to decide, a different line-up for each set, two sets a day for a week. And it all had to be different. Never the same.

AAJ: Plus, you have to play every night this week?

KM: It's ok for me to perform every night. I used to be a stage actor, and that's an ordinary thing in theatre. Of course, performing improvised music every night with different line ups is another thing. But I don't worry too much. It's going to be OK.

AAJ: You're collaborating with percussionist Kevin Norton for a first time.

KM: I've never played with him. Why I chose him? Because I've seen him playing and was interested. His main instrument is vibraphone, but he also plays drums. I let him decide which one to play. Actually, there are many musicians I wanted to book, but to no avail. A lot of people already had other obligations, like trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

AAJ: The Hikashu set will feature two guests, guitarist Mark Ribot, plus sax and shakuhachi player Ned Rothenberg.

KM: Mark came to see our gig with drummer Joey Baron when we played in New York City last May (2013). Actually, we wanted him for our performance in the Fuji Rock Festival this year. Unfortunately, he didn't take the offer because he had other obligations. Ned said that he's always positive about playing with us.

AAJ: You've played with percussionist Cyro Baptista many times before. It seems you and he are on the same wavelength.

KM: Probably. He thinks that we're on the same wavelength too. He contacts me every time he comes to Japan, just asking me about playing together.

AAJ: How about trumpeter Peter Evans? You've rarely played with trumpeters in a duo.

KM: We have been exchanging e-mails, because he wants to come to Japan. Actually he comes to Japan next year. I'm sure it turns out to be great. He's full of energy. His sound is incredible.

AAJ: How about the Koroshi No Blues set? Will it be the same music from your solo, Zorn produced album (Toshiba EMI, 1992), that covered soundtracks from Japanese hard-boiled 1950-60s films?

KM: That's right. I even performed this music at the Knitting Factory around the same time. We had a very good time, so it's going to be great this time too. The Knitting Factory was a great place. That's unforgettable.

AAJ: You're going to revisit the Tokyo Taiga album (Tzadik, 2010), with Mongolian throat-singer Bolot Baryshev and Ned Rothenberg.

KM: Actually, Ned told me he quite favored Tokyo Taiga when it was released. He even said he wanted to play with us. So naturally I asked him to perform together this time.

AAJ: You saved John Zorn for Halloween night.

KM: It's a special day, so I asked John. It's improvisation night. Nobody knows who's going to play because the musicians are arranged just prior to the date.

AAJ: And on the last date, there's a set by the Agra Dharma trio, with electronics player Ikue Mori and Sylvie Courvoisier. It's been some time since you formed that trio.

KM: I was invited a musical event in Austria a few years ago and I asked them to play together. The name is a Buddhist expression, the supreme teaching in Sanskrit. I would like to do some recordings with this trio in the future.


AAJ: Hikashu has been your main musical outfit since the late seventies. Why does the band enjoy such longevity?

KM: Because we think in long terms. Hikashu is very unique. There's no other band like us in Japan. We always consider each member's intentions. Anybody can quit whenever they want. We don't force anything on anybody. We are very loosely connected and very relaxed, not so serious. We are natural and reasonable.

AAJ: Humor is evident in Hikashu's music. How important is humor in your band?

KM: We never try to be humorous. That's not the way. It's natural thing, not intentional. If we lead a humorous daily life, naturally our music will reflect that.

AAJ: What are the band's plans for future?

KM: We would like to record something at a studio while we are in New York. There's a lot of good material in the can.

AAJ: How did you chose to be an independent musician, running your own label?

KM: It's important being independent, not only for the music. It's desirable if it supports freedom for artistic activities. Being independent is very comfortable for musicians, if it is sustainable.

We've released albums with so many major labels in the past, but we have been conscious about being independent from the start. When working with major labels, you're exposed to their opinions and cannot ignore them all. You have to consider those opinions. I don't think that's good for creating something. Then you get in the habit of considering opinions from third parties as you work. That's a bad habit. Instead, you should deepen your creativity. But I don't reject major labels. If there's a major label that is cooperative with us, understanding who we are, I'd be happy to do something together. But that's unlikely to happen right now.

AAJ: Any advice for young, independent musicians?

KM: I recommend making music with a wider scope, a wider vision. Don't stick around the same places where you've already been. You always see the same people. Get out and see other scenes instead. Cross the lines. It's important to see various people out there.

AAJ: Your musical vision is very eclectic, and you're always doing many different things—leading Hikashu, playing the Theremin and the Japanese bamboo flute, shakuhachi, performing Khoomei, throat singing from siberia.

KM: I've been doing things the same way for years. That's just how it is. I'm just doing things what I'm interested in. It took a long time for me to prepare. I don't do that intentionally, and I really don't think I'm doing too many things. For example, I started playing Theremin before practicing it at home for years. I started to use the instrument because I thought it's necessary for Hikashu's sound. Also, I like obscure instruments. So that's one of the reasons, too.

AAJ: How important is improvisation in your various musical activities?

KM: It's very important. At the beginning, Hikashu did a lot of improvisation. There were times when we didn't improvise much, but basically it always has been an important element of the band. We were frequently improvising at home, just for fun. We favored people like Derek Bailey and listened to his Company records.

AAJ: How important has the relationship with John Zorn been for your career?

KM: Very, very important. In 1995, I recorded and released my first solo vocal for Tzadik Kuchinoha. It actually started building my career outside Japan. Shortly after releasing the album, offers from foreign countries were pouring in. I was quite surprised. I respect Zorn very much. He's very productive, and he even built an enterprise to put out his own creation. That's quite an achievement.

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