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Ferocious JP / US free jazz bomb. A rare meeting between the NYC free jazz scene and the Japanese free music scene. Old-style Gatefold LP, with rare photographs & liner notes by Alan Cummings.
Following hot on the heels of the first, mid-sixties generation of Japanese free jazz players like Kaoru Abe, Masayuki Takayanagi, Yōsuke Yamashita, Motoharu Yoshizawa, etc., an exciting second wave of younger players began to emerge in the seventies. Two of its leading members were the saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu and multi-instrumentalist Yoriyuki Harada. Both were post-war babies and immigrants to the city, Umezu from Sendai in the north and Harada from Shimane in the west. They first met as students in the clarinet department at the Kunitachi College of Music, a well-known conservatory in western Tokyo. Harada was already securing sideman gigs on bass with professional jazz groups and was active in student politics, making good use of his connections to set up jazz concerts on campus. It was around this time that the two began to play together in an improvised duo, with Umezu on clarinet and bass clarinet and Harada on piano. They also experimented with graphic scores and prepared piano.
These experiments eventually led to the creation of a trio, with a high-school student called Tetsuya Morimura on drums, that they decided to name Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai (Lifestyle Improvement Committee) in joking reference to the Marxist discourse of the student radicals of the time. Around 1973, Umezu and Harada decided to call it a day and go their separate ways. Umezu began playing with the Toshinori Kondo Unit and Harada with the Tadashi Yoshida Quintet. In 1974 Harada formed his own trio and began to play at jazz coffeehouses across Japan.
Then, in September 1974 Umezu travelled alone to New York, where he set about building connections with the loft jazz scene in the city. It was a fortuitous moment to arrive in New York. Rents were cheap in the Lower East Side, possibilities for squatting existed, so many musicians and artists had moved to the area. Umezu soon became known on the scene as Kappo and he started to make connections with some of the young musicians like David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Oliver Lake. He recalls making the rounds of the lofts every evening, checking out the performances, and getting the chance to sit in with many groups including Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society and trumpeter Ted Daniel’s orchestra.
Things were going so well that Umezu wrote to Harada and invited him to come to New York. He accepted and arrived in the city in July 1975. Harada and Umezu took the opportunity to resume their artistic collaboration. Their first concert together in over two years took place on July 20th at another loft, Sunrise Studios at 122 2nd Avenue. Umezu remembers Sunrise as an unusually sunny loft with the rarest of things, a grand piano. He invited along Ahmed Abdullah, a trumpeter he had got to know while playing with Ted Daniel. Abdullah led his own group and was a long-term Sun Ra sideman. William Parker, one of the key figures in the loft jazz scene of the period, was on bass. Abdullah also brought along Rashid Sinan on drums. Sinan drummed in Abdullah’s units throughout the seventies, but he had also played on Frank Lowe’s immortal Black Beings album and collaborated with Arthur Doyle, playing on Doyle’s Alabama Feeling album. By all accounts the evening was a huge success, with speed and dynamism of Harada’s piano playing gaining him lots of support.
Since they had managed to save some money from their day jobs, Umezu and Harada decided to set up a recording session with the same line-up on August 11 at Studio We, where there was a well-equipped studio on the third floor. Umezu recalls the session as follows, Of course, we recorded our performances in one take, with zero retakes as far as I remember. On all the tracks we recorded, we moved as one unit, sharp and fast. That was the nature of Lifestyle Improvement Committee, New York Branch.
Umezu and Harada would later become known for the elements of parody and entertainment that they brought to their music, a freewheeling blend of pastiche, humour and on-stage performativity that paralleled the approaches of the Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, and Holland’s ICP. But here, on their first recordings, the humour element is not yet present. Instead, there is a febrile sense of joy in creation and connection. On the Umezu-penned “Kim”, for example, Harada opens the piece with a speedy exploration of the full-range of the keyboard, hitting hard on the bass keys to create a rhythmic bed out of which patterns begin to emerge. Umezu enters at a much slower pace, longer held notes that at first float weightlessly over the urgency of the piano before they begin in splinter and accelerate. When Parker and Sinan kick in, it’s a rollicking tempo with Parker plucking deep and hard and the left-handed Sinan skittering hard across the topside of his kit. Abdullah kicks in a glorious solo twelve minutes in, bright and breathy at once. The piece slows and grows more spacious towards the end, giving Parker a chance to showcase some arco work that shades beautifully into the air against Abdullah’s trumpet.