Category Archives: jazz

An Evening of Elegance: 55th Anniversary Garden Party at the Japanese Garden

This anniversary party was filled with positive interactions with the attendees between breaks and after my performance. It’s always a wonderful opportunity to meet new people intrigued by and find enjoyment from my music, but on a broader level, Japanese culture. It’s so good to be connected to such a wonderful, kind, generous, forgiving, and loving community in Seattle.

As I played the third song of the night, Tomio Moriguchi, otherwise known as “Mr. Uwajimaya”, came up to me and said he loved the first piece I played, Sakura, and of course I obliged to play it again. A true honor to have known you Tomio through the years, first meeting you in the early 90s karaoking with you and the late Joyce Yoshikawa at Bush Garden, getting caught up at the Bon Odori through the years, your reminders of how much you appreciated my sister Kimberley’s summer JAS programs with your family (yes Kimberley, Tomio asks about you every time!) and now, how could one not play a song for your memory in such a magical setting as Seattle’s Japanese garden! For the person who quite possibly brought more Japanese food and gifts to America than anyone in America! Domo, domo, domo. The people of Seattle’s Japanese Garden, so many of the attendees such as Tomio, The Sasakis (Cherry Blossom Festival and Fujima Fujimine Dance Ensemble) have colored this city of Seattle with the beautiful wonders of Japanese arts and culture for which I am eternally grateful.

Seattle Japanese Garden, University of Washington Arboretum
Setting up at the Seattle Japanese Garden, University of Washington Arboretum

University of Washington Arboretum Japanese Garden
University of Washington Arboretum Japanese Garden

The koto tunes I played at this event were:

  • My Sakura,
  • Haru No Umi (The Sea in Springtime),
  • Tori No Yo Ni (Like A Bird),
  • Aki No Hou (Toward Autumn Season), and
  • Tide Pools And Waves (Shiyodamari to Nami).
  • Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum.
    Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum.


    I was immediately followed by a traditional Japanese dance by Fujima Fujimine Dance Ensemble (pictured here):

    Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum.
    Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum.
    Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum.
    Seattle Japanese Garden 55th Anniversary garden party, University of Washington Arboretum. I saw familiar faces at the event, including Tazue Sasaki of the Fujima Fujimine Dance Ensemble, her husband Yutaka Sasaki, and members of the Japanese Consulate.
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    Koto Jazz 77: Kawabe House Annual Reception

    There are good folks volunteering at the Kawabe Memorial House, a senior center in Seattle. Here are a few pics from the annual reception. There was good food, good company, and I hope everyone enjoyed my music. I played for about a half hour, mostly Koto jazz pieces and their lovely Korean upright piano. Thanks to all the staff and volunteers for your wonderful hospitality.

    kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji.
    kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji.

    <a href="https://kotojazz.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/wp_001032.jpg"><img src="https://kotojazz.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/wp_001032.jpg?w=300" alt="kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji." width="300" height="225" class="size-medium wp-image-2308" /></a> kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji.
    [caption id="attachment_2308" align="alignnone" width="300"]kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji. kawabe memorial house annual volunteer reception with koto jazz by Chris Kenji Beer.

    KotoJazz 76: Kawabe House & 55th Anniversary of UW Arboretum Japanese Garden Preview

    When I first returned to Seattle as an adult in 1990 (I was born here), I started playing piano at senior homes, mostly George Winston and Scott Cossu re-runs. Today, I bring my own originals to senior venues as a volunteer to share with fellow Japanese Americans. My hope is they will connect with its Japanese koto music influences and enjoy listening to the tunes I play today.

    I will be playing at the Kawabe Memorial House on Friday, June 26th. This event will also be a good warm up along with other volunteer performances for the 55th Anniversary of University of Washington Arboretum’s Japanese Garden celebration on July 24th. I was chosen among numerous applicants to play for this exclusive event.

    Having played at the Seattle Center for the 40th Annual Japanese Cultural Festival in April, this has been a year of re-connecting with the Japanese communities in Seattle where I enjoy a solid following. The ”Koto Jazz & 55th Anniversary Event of the UW Arboretum Seattle Japanese Garden“ is “an evening of Japanese Arts and Cuisine to Benefit Seattle Japanese Garden”. The garden becomes the backdrop for an elegant fete of scrumptious Japanese cuisine with fine wines and sake, a Nodate tea ceremony, and traditional performance arts during this 55th anniversary benefit event. All are welcome to attend by contacting Tel: 206.684.4725; seattlejapanesegarden.org.

    Koto Jazz 75: @ Stage 7 Pianos, Kirkland

    My first performance was a video recording session thanks to my good friend Ed Yakuzawa of Victory Music. Some of the koto jazz tunes have been uploaded to YouTube. Here are a few:

    1) Tide Pools & Waves (Shiyodamari To Nami)

    2) My Sakura

    Koto Jazz 74: playing @ 101 Public House pub

    Half time playing a piano gig at the pub in South Bend/ Raymond, the oyster capital of the world. And two Koto Jazz fans! This was so much more relaxing than a few weeks ago when I played at the Seattle Center. Ahhh, the taste of the ocean air , a couple koto jazz tunes . . .. and more oysters . …

    KotoJazz 62: Song Stories- Wandering Kabuto Mushi

    “Wandering Kabuto Mushi” is a tune about the wandering rhinoceros beetle, or Kabuto mushi. This Japanese beetle is a prized pet among children who raise them and care for them like pets in Japan.

    One of my most joyful and memorable experiences of childhood was going out beetle and bug hunting with my Uncle Yasushi outside of Omiya. We climbed trees to observe and catch the Japanese Rhinoceros Beetle in the wild. I was 6 or 7 at the time. We would also hunt for and catch other exotic bugs such as stag beetles and “semmi” or cicadas. Different from the cicadas I’ve seen in he States, the Japanese semmi can be a gorgeous aqua green to blue color, or even orange to fiery red. There is an entire mini industry and bug pet raising culture in Japan, especially in the rural communities of Japan.

    This song Wandering Kabuto Mushi is about the slow and steady nature of this prized Japanese pet, like the slow moving but wise tortoise.

    Unfortunately, my vast collection of rhinoceros beetles and other exotic bugs which I had stored at my mother’s place in Boulder was swept away and destroyed by last year’s flood. Some family friends were forced out of their homes, and others lost their lives, so the loss of my skeleton insect relics were small compared to that. Still, I miss them, but this simple song carries on my memories of them.

    This version was recorded live at Egan’s Jam House in Ballard November 21st 2016, and was one of a number of new songs I introduced at the show.

    Koto Jazz 56: Song Stories – Mount Index Ice Caves

    This new age musical tune was inspired by a hike with my friend Kim. We climbed to the ice caves at the summit of Mount Index off highway 2 just northeast of Seattle.

    The Mount Index ice caves were leaking typical eerie, echoing sounding drops of water melting off blue ice, which increasingly gathered and coalesced into more and more tributaries of water racing toward the opening of the ice caves. It is the beginning of the water cycle, passing beyond alpine lakes and converging with glacial streams and eventually, rivers racing toward the Pacific ocean.

    It’s one of my fun trance-like tunes of quirky frivolity reminding of the simple world we live in and the majesty of the basic elements that give us life.

    KotoJazz 52: Song Stories – Shiyodamari to Nami (Tide Pools & Waves)

    In my last performance at the Royal Room November 30th, I told the stories about how each of the Koto jazz songs I played came to be. The following I hope serve as a glimpse into the koto jazz process as I reflect on a particular part of the natural world and seek to bring out its natural majesty and beauty in a musical tune. Tide Pools l & The Wind, for example, I wrote a few weeks ago.

    Shiyodamari To Nami (Tide Pools & Waves) – This smooth jazz song was inspired by viewing tide pools on the Oregon and Washington coasts, feeling the motions of wind dashing upon tide pools and waves; their undulating patterns; their graceful dance on sandy shores. When we leave our world whatever it is and enter the world of the majestic wind, we see that the Wind breathes the Spirit of life onto our world and we can be left with nothing but awe and inspiration.

    KotoJazz 51: Japanese American Jazz

    Koto Jazz tunes, though more definitively classical koto in style and sound, may be associated with Japanese American jazz. According to the “Music in Asian America” blog, Asian American jazz is a genre of jazz that arose in the late 20th century in the United States. Asian American jazz is often referred to as a hybrid of African American jazz with Asian influences (see Music In Asian America). It is music played by Japanese/Asian musicians, or jazz music that is in some way connected to Japan, Japanese or Asian culture. Japan has the largest jazz fan base in the world, according to some sources. The diverse styles and genres of these musicians demonstrates the individual unique expressions of Asian American jazz.

    The following are summaries of leading Japanese American jazz performers (click on the artists names for music samples):

    Hiroshima may be the most well known Asian American fusion jazz/smooth jazz rock band. The group was formed in 1974 by Dan Kuramoto (wind instruments and band leader), Peter Hata (guitar), June Kuramoto (koto), Johnny Mori (percussion and taiko), Dave Iwataki (keyboards) and Danny Yamamoto (drums). Named for the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the band is best known for the fusing of Japanese music and other forms of world music into its playing. Among the band’s many accomplishments– their popularity in the Asian and African American communities for R&B Funk sound, opening act for Miles Davis 1990 world tour, and their 1989 original score “The Moon is a Window to Heaven” used in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”.

    Ryo Kawasaki (born February 25, 1947) chose a career as a jazz fusion guitarist after spending some years studying as a scientist. During the 60s he played with various Japanese jazz groups and also formed his own bands. In the early 70s he came to New York. Kawasaki is able to switch between hard bop and jazz-rock, and continues to play jazz guitar with an edgy rock influence.

    Toshihiko Akiyoshi: Though born in Liaoyang, Manchuria of Japanese emigrants, Toshihiko Akiyoshi began her musical career in Japan. Akiyoshi and Tabackin (her husband) formed a 16-piece big band in 1973 composed of studio musicians a year after moving to Los Angeles. Akiyoshi’s music is distinctive for its textures and for its Japanese influence. Akiyoshi was inspired by her own Japanese musical heritage and composed with Japanese themes, Japanese harmonies, and even Japanese instruments (e.g. kotsuzumi, kakko, utai, tsugaru shamisen, etc.), all the while remaining rooted in jazz.

    Gerald Oshita (1942–1992) was an American musician of Japanese ancestry who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and specialized in wind instruments, particularly those rare ones of low register. He performed and recorded with saxophones, contrabass sarrusophone, and Conn-o-sax, and also made shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flutes). Oshita’s music drew on elements of jazz as well as contemporary classical music.

    Glenn Horiuchi (February 27, 1955 – June 3, 2000) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and shamisen player. He was a central figure in the development of the Asian American jazz movement, according to Wikipedia. Glenn Horiuchi was a West Coast pianist who worked to combine jazz with Asian and Western classical music. He released albums on the 80s and 90s such as Soul Note and Asian Improv.

    Anthony Brown, the son of a Choctaw and African-American father and Japanese mother, is an American jazz percussionist, drummer, composer, and bandleader. He specialized in American and Asian instruments and styles in his compositions and arrangements. Brown lead a cross-cultural ensemble, the Asian American Orchestra, whose interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite was nominated for a 2000 Grammy Award. He also performed with Asian American jazz artists Jon Jang and Mark Izu.

    KotoJazz 47: Jazz Koto & The Music of Eugene Yamamoto

    The jazzy funk fusion style music of Eugene Yamamoto represents Jazz Koto music very well. He successfully preserves an Asian international sound or melody while including western rhythm, jazz and funk music styles.

    You can listen to samples of Eugene’s music at Jazz Koto of Eugene Yamamoto, by Accardi/Gold and Union Label Music / Cloister Recordings.

    His music is a frivolously fun style, even using the traditional Koto instrument in a new and unique way with adventurous, rhythmic plucking. He does this with a steady western style beat, which differentiates it from Koto Jazz tunes and traditional Japanese koto music. The rhythm and beat is definitively western, while some songs are interwoven with Asian and Japanese style melodies and chordal structures. These distinctions can be heard clearly as you listen to “Walk in the Garden” and “Samurai Dream Vacation“.

    In “Saki Train” and “Martian Tea House” it seems he uses the Japanese koto instrument and sound with a funky, electronica sound.

    Kudos to Eugene for his take on Jazz Koto and definitely worth a listen.

    Koto Jazz 39: Old & New Faces at the Royal Room, Seattle

    I saw a lot of old faces in the crowd at my performance at the Royal Room (Columbia City, South Seattle) and a lot of new faces.

    I can’t thank the old faces enough for coming out to see me play the piano (thank you, thank you, thank you). As we grow in our understanding and expression of koto jazz, it is not possible without your support. What an opportunity to play before a full house on a Monday night. 🙂

    I’m also curious about the new faces and why they came. So I went out and talked to them. The feedback I received is that people are interested in the music, but more than the music. They are interested in the flow state and the connection to a spirituality with Nature and the Shinto and Zen Buddhist origins that these Koto jazz pieces introduce to the listener.

    I’m surprised I received as much feedback as I did about the spirituality that creativity offers us. On the music side as predicted, people loved certain songs, all the comments came from one of the Koto jazz pieces I wrote (Hatchidori and Kozan no Kaze) and a few endorsements of the variations on known Koto melodies I jazzed up. But it was also the energy they like.

    My music is an attempt to re-connect with the spirituality about and around Nature. This spirituality is not locked up in the closed doors of any institution or church, or temple, or shrine. My music serves as a simple offering of our attention to nature and invitation to be present to it in whatever form it takes before us; whether a hummingbird or ripples on creek rocks. Music is one of many vehicles that can unleash that spirituality.

    The Shinto influence of it is so much more than the political environmentalism of our time. It’s really not enough for me to say “I drive an electric car”, or “I’m saving up to put solar panels on my home.” Sure, that’s all good, practical good. But it’s not spiritual. It is the essence of the natural world we tend to overlook. We forget that we come from this Natural state and we tend to take it for granted. When do we say thank you in the language of the Creator, that we are grateful for everything created for us in this world? The Creator does not speak a specific human language; not even English. It’s Not just about the stuff We create, but the stuff of Life that’s been here almost forever.

    In other blog entries here, I talk about the science of the flow state or Shinto spirituality, ions and all that. Clearly it’s that, but more. I’m interested in all that, because I like science and I like proof, but I’m also interested in the “more” part. There will always be more, and I’m tired of the polemics and ideology that rend our age. I want more, don’t you? I choose today, to pay honor and reverence to that which is “More”; was here long before I came into existence, and most certainly will be here long after I pass on.

    The presence of the Natural world in our lives is not a religious proposition, it’s not profound at all, it’s really simple. We can be changed and transformed by it if we “tune in”, if we choose to listen to the language of the Creator. Seek this first, my friend, “and all else . …. ”

    Yes, my next big challenge as a musician will be to write a koto jazz piece about the “Sea Slug” (pictured above). If I can write a song about a sea slug, I’m getting somewhere. 🙂

    Koto Jazz 36: Flow State in Art & Music

    Have you ever been so immersed in a creative adventure that it takes you to a different, alternative plain where your creative expression no longer feels like you, but a part of something more? Wikipedia defines the “flow state” as being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” It is a serendipitous, spontaneous expression of joy. It is spontaneous because one’s greatest level of creativity emerges from the collective unconscious almost without your own planning it to happen. It just flows out of you, and in many cases, it rushes out of you like a waterfall. It is serendipitous because so much of your unique and beautiful creative discovery almost happens by accident in this flow state.

    The energy of the flow state is passed on or transmitted to onlookers, such as an audience, or a passive participant in the activity. I’ve attended many live performances in the creative arts, even visited many fellow word pressers, and whether it’s someone’s live performance, garden reflections, a haiku poem, ikebana flower arrangement, or garden design, I feel the person’s flow state and their creative energy in their creations. This also happens when I listen to a brilliant musical performance. The artist gives me insight into the person’s connection with their creativity, their spirituality, and their connection to the world. Perhaps, this is what Carl Jung referred to as the “oceanic self”, a part of our being that is connected with all of Life, and the energy of Life.

    The artistic expression can take us to another plain or spiritual state. I get this when I listen to the “chaos jazz” music of Li Pui Ming, the eternally optimistic consonance of Peter Kater, or in a very different way, the meditation music of Shakuhachi flutist Riley Lee and ukulele composer Jake Shimabukuro. Li Pui Ming takes me into her collective unconscious of order intermingling with chaos and a genius flow state. Riley Lee and Jake Shimabukuro take me to a meditative or contemplative “flow state” much like the Buddhist/ Taoist teaching of being in a state of “action through inaction.” Athletes enter this zone as well, according to Wikipedia. The famous martial arts expert Bruce Lee for example, encouraged his students to “Be like water …Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.”

    In my own musical performing experiences, it is not uncommon that the music takes me along a ride beyond me, in a zone where the music takes over, and takes me to an alternative plain. I feel this particularly when I play two musical pieces– Hatchidori Wa Hana Kara Hana e Tobu (Hatchidori, for short; translated to mean “The Hummingbird Flies from Flower to Flower”), and Kozan no Kaze (“Alpine Winds” or Alpine Wind Storm). The other day, a fellow musician mentioned after one of my performances that “you are one of those performers who can take the audience to a higher plain.” He referred it as like a “black hole” into the unconsciousness that gives a glimpse into another world or realm of reality. It was powerful to hear that.

    I hope I can do that every time I play. But before I can make any credible comment on that, I would say my music needs refinement, and this means I need to play on a real piano with real weighted keys and full depth with an 88- key range more than once every one or two months. Then, at that point, I may come to a place where I agree with this person. It’s much easier to reach that flow state when I’m alone in my room playing my mini- electric keyboard with no one listening.

    The artist’s great challenge is to share that openly when the opportunity arises (and we are all artists at some level), and be always willing to push the envelop. Creative expression is full of emotion, and if you keep your peace in tact, share your creativity with the world, even if you don’t think you’re quite ready. So what I mean by being “ready” is not ready performance-wise, but be emotionally ready even if your performance level is not where you believe it can or should be. Look at the crazy popularity of karaoke singing worldwide– it gives people that creative outlet that is now socially acceptable, acceptable to take a stab at belching out your favorite tunes even if you don’t have that refined Whitney Houston kind of a quality voice. For me, while this website does offer some “rough” samples of my music, it’s not yet nearly refined to where it can be, but in any case, I do love the process. I love playing. 🙂 I think you’ll love it too– yes, the music too, but the process. Enjoy the ride, and don’t ever let go of your creative spark! Be the Hummingbird. 😉

    Koto Jazz 33: Music & Mindfulness

    Music is able to transform the human mind and spirit in similar ways as natural places of beauty. This is accomplished in part by the sound of music imitating nature by rhythmic beat and flow, its movement in and out of patterns, its simple resonation, coloration, depth of sound, and most importantly, its moments of intermittent silence.

    Perhaps, my favorite musical pieces, especially those with koto jazz tunes and themes are those that are able to most effectively bring out the melodious expressions of beauty in nature. While I try to do this in all my music, here are a few feature samples of my music where I believe I come close to accomplishing this (I will be featuring these songs when I play at Seattle’s Royal Room on September 8th):

  • Ki Kara Amei no Shizuku (Rain drops from Trees; see the above photo)
  • Hatchidori Wa Hana Kara Hana e Tobu (Hummingbird Flies from Flower to Flower)
  • Kuriku Iwa no Hamon (Ripples over Creek Rocks)
  • Tori No Yo Ni & Koto jazz encore (rough live recording at the Brass Tacks, Seattle)
  • Certain harmony even dissonance, can induce the same euphoric state as inspiration from the natural world. From a health science perspective, it releases chemicals in the brain but also establishes an ionic, possibly magnetic balance in the brain to build upon higher spirituality and higher levels of intuition (again, referring back to James Redfield’s “intuition” in Celestine Prophecy).

    After all, music is made by the passing of energy through strings and other instruments. These “instruments of energy” pass on their energy and nurture our spirits. They often connect us with our subconscious emotions and life experiences, or to the contrary, may help us escape from them. It can also lead our spirits to an enlightened spiritual plain. When a musical masterpiece is played in your presence, do you not feel uplifted and recognize the performer taking you to a higher spiritual plain? I think this is what Ludwig Von Beethoven meant when he said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”

    This also explains the use of sound in some sects of Buddhism, and the use of the flute in the aforementioned Zen sect (see “suizen” or blowing meditation in Koto Jazz 34: Shakuhachi Flute).

    When we connect with people enjoying the same music, we feel a heightened euphoria and spiritual connection with them, as if we’ve learned something spiritual and profound about them without the need for communication of words. So in that sense, it is a powerful form of human spiritual communication, and communication with a Higher Power.

    Koto Jazz 32: Shakuhachi (Bamboo Flute)

    The most common instrument played alongside the koto instrument is the shakuhachi (bamboo flute). The shakuhachi made its presence in Japan from China during the Edo period as a form of Zen Buddhist meditation called suizen (blowing meditation). As described by Wikipedia, the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks is known as komusō, or priests of “nothingness” or “emptiness”. The shakuhachi is most commonly made of bamboo, its original form. The term itself is an ancient unit of measurement. The instrument is extremely versatile and seemingly limitless in range. But the most distinctive part of the shakuhachi sound is its depth and richness of tone.

    Here is a basic introduction of the bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, and koto music played in harmony together. The following are some I have in my collection:

  • Japanese Traditional Shakuhachi Music, by Satomi Saeki and Alvcin Takegawa Ramos
  • Shakuhachi Flute Meditations, by Riley Lee
  • Sakura-Japanese Melodies for Flute and Harp, by Lily Laskine and Jean-Pierre Rampal
  • The Japanese Bamboo Flute and Koto, by Yamato Ensemble
  • Variatons on Haru No Umi, by Kenji (note how this variation admittedly does not capture the full range and coloration of the shakuhachi as it is converted onto the piano)