two Japanese women dressed in traditional kimono playing koto instruments.

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KOTO JAZZ DEFINED

Koto jazz is variations of traditional Japanese koto music and melodies with an infusion of western rhythm and jazz. These include Sakura, Tori No Yo Ni, Aki No Koto No Ha, Haru No Umi, Rokudan, Midare, and a score of others. I take these musical pieces and play them on the piano, vary the sound and tone with western influences of jazz, rhythm and beat. I also created my own Koto Jazz pieces Hatchidori Wa Hana Ka[ra] Hana [e tobu] (Hummingbird Flies from Flower to Flower), Kuriku Iwa No Hamon (Ripples on Creek Rocks), Shiodamari To Kaze (Tide Pools & The Wind), Aki No Ho (Toward Autumn Season), Kozan No Kaze [Alpine Wind (Storm)], and Wandering Kabutomushi (Rhinoceros Beetle).

This kotojazz.com website is dedicated to the musical expression of nature– what I believe is the ultimate intent and spiritual source of all Koto music, and therefore all Koto jazz music. The kanji (calligraphy) characters of the Koto Jazz logo on this website can be translated to mean “the jazz thing”, as opposed to the character for koto music. This is deliberate as koto jazz does not pretend to duplicate koto music on the piano, but fuses western influences into koto music to offer it in a new exciting and innovative light.

Koto jazz is not to be confused with Jazz Koto, which uses the koto instrument and sound in western jazz music. Jazz Koto became popular in the 70s and 80s by such notable western musicians as Dorothy Ashby, Reiko Obata and East-West Jazz, the fusion jazz band Hiroshima, Eugene Yamamoto, and Masako Naito. Koto jazz is the opposite.

The koto instrument is often referred to as the Japanese “harp”. Historically, the Japanese koto is derived from the ancient Chinese zither called Ch’in. The Japanese koto instrument however, has 13-strings, each with a movable ivory bridge. Unlike the koto, the Ch’in has no bridges and only seven strings. Sounds in koto melodies are far in range, including plucking, shaking, scraping, and striking which produces a wide range of dynamic constraints, tonal flare, and other sound effects such as glissandos, tremolos, trills, and glides.

A MINIMALIST FORM

Koto is a minimalist form, and one can argue it does not belong in the same phrase as jazz. What I learned is that the restless, agitated mind can be calmed by the serenity of the tender pluck of the Koto. Likewise, Koto can be brought to life and energized by western jazz and rhythm.

Spiritually, Koto jazz seeks to bring out the Japanese Shinto-Buddhist spiritual energy sourced from contemplation and reverence to nature as well as ancestral worship, while incorporating western Judeo-Christian ideals. My weekly blog entries here reflect this ongoing musical, spiritual journey.

The piano for me is a spontaneous expression and movement of energy inspired by the same forces of Nature that originally created the delicate yet powerful sounds of Koto. At its deepest, it is a spiritual immersion of complete selflessness. The notion of the Buddhist “no self” espoused by my Jesuit Buddhist teacher at Sophia University in Tokyo comes to mind. I take from the same tradition as free form digital imagery, art, poetry, music, and culture that breaks free of the structures that bind us and divides us, and then I let it all go, surrender it to the wind. The wind always “blows where it wishes, and we know neither from where it comes or to where is goes”. Do we hear the sound of it? The spiritual meditator from Nazareth asks us. Is there anything more important for any of us in this life?

I am graced today with special people in my circle. I have an amazing child whose every moment of presence in my life is a gift. I drive a 100% electric vehicle run by 20 “recycled” electric batteries from Budget Batteries and I’m working on a solar certification. I love to garden. I participate in meditation and yoga. I try to eat organic and gluten-free, and I like to occasionally cook for friends. I perform publicly a few times per month at venues throughout the Pacific Northwest (primarily Seattle and Portland areas).

I play my mini- electric keyboard every day or night, or my piano recently donated to me by Keystone Church (Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle) by day. I learned about this piano at a Meaningful Movies event held at the church. I listen to live music as much as possible, and I’m active in the arts community, especially the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Victory Music. I have also been involved with the amazing work done by Seattle’s Artist Trust Foundation as a selection member for the Dale & Leslie Chihuly Artist Grant Award. My primary source of news is “The Daily Show” by John Stewart and Ted.com. I also bike, hike, swim, and kayak.

Samples of my music are available in the “Sample Sounds” section of this site.

Background

Flatirons Rocks of Bear Mountain, Boulder, Colorado
Flatirons Rocks of Bear Mountain, Boulder, Colorado

Koto jazz is an idea I formed and conceived growing up in Boulder (Colorado), Cannon Beach (Oregon), and Tokyo (Japan). I was born in Seattle (Washington) where I have settled and have lived for over 30 years. I spoke Japanese in the house for some time after returning from living in Tokyo with my family, especially with my Japanese mother.

My most vivid and joyous memories of childhood were of climbing trees to catch Japanese rhinoceros beetles and colorful cicadas, and learning science the old school way– digging your hands into the earth to plant seeds and nurturing tadpoles to slowly transform into high flying, hoppers. This is where the Koto jazz spark begins. I was around the age of 6 or 7 living in a traditional Japanese home near Tokyo University where my dad taught. It continued with every disciplined stroke of the calligraphy brush and every visit to the market with obaa-chan (grandmother) holding my hand; and with every silent moment looking out into a carefully, delicately manicured Japanese garden. At the markets in Tokyo, we always stopped by the mini- koi/ gold fish (pet) booth. I stood in wonder at the awesome beauty of the koi in simple, flowing motion.

As a child, I listened to the music of my mother’s heritage, Keiko Harada Beer, and spent formative years in Japan during childhood where I attended Japanese public school, many summers (my father, Lawrence Ward Beer was a college professor of Japanese studies at the University of Colorado), and later eight months during my junior year of college at Jouchi Daigaku (Sophia University in Tokyo). I took some formal piano lessons until third grade, but really blossomed when I began playing by ear listening to pop and rock tunes on the radio and playing them on the piano.

Chris Kenji playing Koto Jazz at the 101 Public House restaurant and jazz club in South Bend/ Raymond, Washington.
Chris Kenji playing Koto Jazz at the 101 Public House restaurant and jazz club in South Bend/ Raymond, Washington.

My piano playing evolved as a teenager to include such popular grammy award winning and nominated instrumentalists as George Winston, Scott Cossu, Peter Kater, Steve Haun, and Andreas Vollenweider. It also included tampering with koto music on the piano.  I played by ear ever since. When I played the songs of these popular instrumentalists of Windham Hill and Silver Wave Records, I became restless. I had perhaps some anger, some rebelliousness.

Around the same time period, I experimented with traditional Japanese koto music. The variations of popular traditional Japanese koto music and themes are injected with alternative rock rhythm and jazz embellishments. My first Koto jazz song was “Sakura“. While I loved the simple, peaceful melody of this famous Koto piece, I had a western itch, or fidgety- “ness” about me and I banged it out like a rock tune. After much practice, I learned to moderate and temper my energy and passion. Today, my favorite Koto piece is “Tori No Yo Ni” (Like a Bird). It elicits the scene of a majestic crane playing, splashing in still water, then spreading its broad wings to lift off in flowing motion, later to return with an unequaled, graceful landing. My first koto jazz composition was “Hatchidori“.

I continued to connect with Japanese and Chinese traditional music as a business man working for mobile and Internet companies in the 90s and 2000s, and performed for such notables as the late Philippines Speaker of the House Jose De Venecia, Jr. and staff during a reception of business delegates, and the late Ambassador Tom Foley, a distant relative.  I have also performed for annual dinners, weddings, graduation ceremonies, funerals, and local venues around the Seattle, Portland, Colorado, and west coast.

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A piano synthesis of Japanese Koto themes & progressive electronic new age jazz.

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