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Steve Kuhn: On Japan

Wayne Zade By

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AAJ: Does it seem to you that American jazz musicians typically bring their own bands to Japan?

SK: Yes. I think so.

AAJ: Many jazz musicians in Japan have studied in the States, and then gone back to Japan to play. There's a pretty healthy club scene in Japan that features Japanese players and Japanese bands.

SK: I believe so, yes.

AAJ: Yet many Japanese musicians have been frank about struggling with issues of originality in jazz.

Steve KuhnSK: We see this even in the Yamaha pianos. In a sense, they've copied the Steinways, but they've improved them in their incredible durability; they hold the tuning much better than a Steinway or any pianos in the world. It is a central part of the Japanese culture to study the models of other countries and to refine, elaborate, advance. The Japanese have an incredible love of jazz, and they love other types of popular music as well, and classical music too.

AAJ: Even gospel music.

SK: Yes. But it's not indigenous to them, and so to be innovative is a huge challenge. But the Japanese are undeniably talented and creative. Finding your own voice in jazz is a struggle for any musician.

AAJ: The struggle for them is to locate a central Japanese musical tradition, or soulful base, like the blues, in various forms of folk music.

SK: They have the scales. The challenge is to incorporate the original roots. The same is true with European musicians. To find those cultural roots and fuse them with jazz techniques is the creative problem.

AAJ: One Japanese guy who might come to mind is Masabumi Kikuchi, the pianist. His sense of space, of spareness, is unique.

SK: I know of him, but I've never heard him play.

AAJ: He works a lot with Gary Peacock over here, and with Paul Motian. The group is called, or was called, Tethered Moon.

SK: Does he live in New York?

AAJ: Maybe a few months of the year, yes. And then he returns to Japan.

SK: He seems like one of the exceptions, then.

AAJ: Let's switch gears a bit. How did you begin your association with Venus Records in Japan?

SK: A guy named Todd Barkan was involved in that. He gets the talent together for Lincoln Center, Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club there. He had been working with Venus, and the owner, Tetsuo Hara, since the label started. My name came up, and Mr. Hara said he would like to record me. All the recordings have been done in New York. Mr. Hara comes to New York from Tokyo, and he usually does three or four projects at a time when he's here, for about two weeks. Todd Barkan is the co-producer. These trips have become regular events, but due to the economy, nothing has happened for about a year now.

AAJ: Can you comment on the effects of the economy?

SK: [shrugs] Well, they're not good. Anywhere.

AAJ: Venus seems to have a very special interest in recording pianists.

SK: Mr. Hara likes piano trios. Very few vocalists appear on Venus, and there are a few horn players. It's mostly piano trios. Venus is an independent company. He runs it by himself, and his daughter is helping him now. He's a very nice man, a gentleman, very well dressed—just a really nice guy. But I know he's been having some financial issues, and trying to get some more money from backers, and that's the reason why there's been somewhat of a hiatus in recording activities.

AAJ: Don't some of the Venus recordings get rereleased in the States?

SK: For several of mine, Mr. Hara worked out a deal with Sunnyside Records here in New York, and they reissued them. For some of them, they had to change the covers—have you seen some of the Venus covers [laughs]? They're very explicit, female forms.

AAJ: People might have thought that was your idea.

Steve KuhnSK: [laughs] I asked him a couple of years ago, Why do you have this? Every time a record comes out over here, they have to put another cover on it. And he said, "Because it sells, it sells in the Japanese market." That was his answer.

Anyway, Sunnyside released three of the Venus albums I had done. Mr. Hara decided not to do any more with Sunnyside because the Sunnyside records were flowing back into Japan and were selling for much less than the Venus versions. So businesswise, it made no sense.

He keeps saying to me he really wants to open an office here in New York, and get good distribution here. For the time being, I understand the whole Venus catalogue is available on Amazon.com. That's the way to go, at this point, for those who want to get any of the Venus recordings.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about another label, ECM. You've had a very long relationship with ECM. How do your ECM recordings do in Japan? Do you have a sense of that? I would think that the Japanese would be crazy about them—the very high production standards, the ECM "sound."

SK: Oh, they do pretty well. ECM has an office there, and a distributor. From time to time, I meet the ECM staff people over there, and they often come to the venues where we play,

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