Tag Archives: jazz koto

Koto Jazz 60: Song Stories – Aki No Hou

“Aki No Hou”, which means toward the autumn season, is loosely derived by two traditional Japanese Koto pieces – “Midare” (off balance) and “Aki No Koto No Ha” (the sea in springtime). Some of the plucking styles used in “Midare” are used here.

While my tunes have similar patterns to the “Akin no Koto no Ha”, Aki no Hou takes on a life of its own. Ultimately my creation as the final product has little or no resemblance to these ancient Japanese original works. I wrote “Aki no Hou” in the fall of 2014, inspired by the changing seasons, the energetic dynamics of the autumn; the changing colors of trees and plants, the bustling of wildlife in preparation for winter, and the anticipation of settling into its moments of solitude.

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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 55: Song Stories – Kozan No Kaze (Alpine Winds)

My Alpine Winds (Storm) piece has an interesting origin. Much of my years growing up in Colorado were spent in the Rocky Mountains and its hard coming away with anything short of awe at the power of Nature.

Though written in the summer of 2014, Kozan no Kaze (Alpine Wind (storm)) was inspired by a camping trip I took with my childhood friend Rex off the Peak-to-peak highway just west of Boulder Colorado. Our plan was to hike in at timber line and wake up to a glorious view of snow-capped mountains and a winter wonderland. The camping trip/ hike up was magical with tranquil lakes and flowing springs from snow laden summits.

A winter wonderland we got. As we were hiking in we were literally stopped by a blinding wind storm. Nevertheless, the trip was stopped short by an abrupt blinding wind and snow storm, which forced back to “civilization”. Since we could only see a few feet ahead, we decided to try to stake down the tent and call it a night. That didn’t happen either, as the wind blew over our tent and rolled us around inside the tent, and so we succumbed to the power of the wind storm and headed back to the trail head.

The Alpine Wind tunes came out of this glorious experience.

Kozan no Kaze (Alpine Wind (storm))

Koto Jazz 53: Song Stories – Hatchidori (Hummingbird) Story

This energetic Koto jazz piece I wrote this summer (2014) is reflective of the spring season mating patterns of the hummingbird. To attract its mate, the male hummingbird scales up and down the keys of the sky as a kind of mating dance to attract the attention of female hummingbirds. I observed this odd mating dance at Discovery Park in Seattle during a hike in the summer of 2014.

This melody also reflects the playful dance tunes of hummingbirds flying from flower to flower, which is the translated name of the song Hatchidori Wa Hana Kara Hana E Tobu. Purchase preview is available on Amazon music at Hatchidori Amazon.

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 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)
  • KotoJazz 22: 3 Key Elements to Japanese Gardens & Koto Jazz

    The Portland Japanese Garden (the Garden) website outlines the fundamentals of the Japanese garden succinctly. So many elements seem to come in threes – Shinto, Buddhist, Taoist – and then the three essential elements – stone, water, and plants (see Portland Japanese Garden, at http://japanesegarden.com/learn-more/gardens/). According to Wikipedia, “traditional Japanese gardens can be categorized into three types: tsukiyama (hill gardens), karesansui (dry gardens) and chaniwa gardens (tea gardens).” (see Wikipedia, Japanese gardens).

    Likewise in Koto Jazz, three fundamental elements are present in the music and sound that makes it unique – Japanese Koto, western influence (rhythm and jazz), and reverence to Nature. To continue this analogy, The Garden begins with the “bones” of the garden, stones. I would parallel this with the traditional Japanese koto musical roots of koto jazz. Though they may vary from one musical piece to another, traditional koto tunes with its spiritual roots provide the base of the “musical garden” of koto jazz. The Garden’s second element is water described as the “life-giving force” of the garden. Likewise in koto jazz, western influences of rhythm and jazz weave within and through koto jazz as its “life-giving force”. Finally, the Garden describes plants as the gardens’ tapestry of the four seasons. This is the embellishment and coloring of the garden landscape, just as inspiration from Nature provides the embellishment and coloring of koto jazz music.

    Other physical elements such as pagodas, stone lanterns, water basins, arbors, maples, and bridges, are provided by this kotojazz.com blog. Feel free to scroll down for information about these elements of the Japanese garden. The above image is a scene in the Portland Japanese Garden showing varieties of colored Japanese maples and a bridge.

    On July 5th at 9pm, you have the opportunity to see some of this koto jazz music on display at the Brass Tacks, Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. It’s an exciting opportunity to first hand experience the creative energy and spiritual presence of koto jazz. For more information, see “events section” of this website. I hope to see you there!

    KotoJazz 18: Japanese Garden Bridges

    Japanese garden design is strongly connected to spirituality. Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism are often the source in the creation of different garden styles. They are intended to be places of peace for meditation and spiritual contemplation and prayer.

    While bridges have become path ways linking garden visitors from one part of the garden to another, bridges do have spiritual meaning in Japanese gardens. Some bridges symbolize the path to paradise and immortality. The famous Kyoto garden bridge, Byōdō-in, connects the Phoenix pavilion with a small island of stones, representing the Mount Penglai or Mount Horai, the island home of the Eight Immortals of Daoist teaching.

    Other special islands in the Zen Buddhist tradition, such as the crane and tortoise islands, are sacred and not accessible by bridge. If one sees a bridge to an island in this type of garden pond, these are ordinary islands called nakajima (since they are accessible to the public). See KotoJazz 9: Island of Japanese Gardens for more information.

    Bridges can also simply serve as functional links between different eco-regions or sections of the Japanese garden. Stone bridges are called ishibashi. Wooden bridges are dobashi. Arched bridges are known as soribashi and flat bridges are hirabashi. While most bridges are not colored, the red painted temple bridges come from China.

    Here are some interesting links to information about Japanese garden and bridges:

  • Origins of The Japanese Garden
  • Hoi An Bridge, VietNam(a famous Japanese garden bridge)
  • Elements of the Japanese Garden Bridge, Bowdoin College
  • Yuugiri Japanese Garden Bridge
  • Monet’s famous images of Japanese Garden Bridge Painting
  • How to Build a Miniature Japanese Garden
  • Where To Buy Garden Bridges, GardenBridges.com
  • Where to Buy Garden Bridges, Hay Needle
  • KotoJazz 15: “Chaos Jazz”

    “Chaos Jazz” might be a genre of its own, and if that is the case, the east-west connection is alive and well in this category. Some samples of “chaos jazz” I’ve listened to that are connected to koto jazz tunes are:

  • Hatchidori (Hummingbird)- by Kenji
  • Tori No Yo Ni (Like a Bird), version by Kenji
  • Strange Beauty, Who’s Playing, & She Comes to Shore (3 albums), by Pui Ming Lee (the most dynamic, powerful chaos jazz I’ve heard; my recommendation: Strange Beauty (album)), by Pui Ming Lee
  • Nozaki (Edo Gigaku), by Masahiko Satoh
  • Koto Power Trio, by Michiyo Yagi, Jim O’Rourke, and Tamaya Honda
  • Shizuku (album), by Michiyo Yagi
  • She Comes To Shore, by Pui Ming Lee
  • Yuji Takahashi biography; and MP3 music samples, by Yuji Takahashi
  • Improvisational music, by Makoto Ozone
  • Drummin’ Koto- Ney & Guitar Intro to Silent Speech (featuring Mieko Miyazaki (koto), Patrick Goraguer (drums), Nguyen Le (guitar), Kudzi Erguner (ney) by Chris Jennings
  • O-Lim (Ascension) (Red Sun), by SamulNori (images of Korean traditional music and jazz)
  • Record of Changes & Then Comes the White Tiger, by SamulNori

  • Others:

  • Deception Pass, by Scott Cossu
  • Aerial Boundaries, by Michael Hedges
  • Something Ala Mode, by Rondoparisiano
  • Motherboard, by Random Access Memories
  • KotoJazz 14: The Serendipity in “Order Out of Chaos”

    I know I’m not alone in this. I know that many people, artists, designers, engineers, express their deeper, at times darker, life experiences through their art or trade of choice. My big lesson while playing the piano, is facing and overcoming fear. The first step is to know how fear is present in my life. It helps me face them. I find it is often tied to something that happened so long ago that I have unconsciously carried it with me unresolved over years, decades. So much of it stems from childhood trauma.

    So often I sit in fear of imperfection, fear of sweet imperfection; not playing this or that tune or melody just right. I at times become paralyzed, as if it is better to not play at all if it can’t be played perfectly. My piano playing experiences are a microcosm of life’s lessons.

    There will always be imperfection, and through that imperfect journey, that stumbling, prodding, and wandering into the unknown and uncertain, I have the opportunity to learn its innate perfection. It is the imperfection of the journey that makes it perfect; at minimum, it brings out perfection. The imperfection carries with it uncertainty and chaos. Out of the uncertainty, unclarity and chaos, inevitably comes the impeccably clear Mastery of Serendipity (discovery by accident).

    It reminds me of “chaos theory”. Just like 1977 Nobel Prize Winner Ilia Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ book titled, “Order Out of Chaos” states, “the two great themes of classic science, order and chaos”, which coexisted in near conflict since science began, scientifically and mathematically coalesce into a “new and unexpected synthesis”. As Edward Lorenz puts it in his definition of “chaos theory”, chaos occurs “when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

    More reading about creativity and chaos theory is available here at Creative Chaos. If you dare to venture into a story line about “chaos communities”, how about a book on the Burning Man event?

    Out of Spontaneous Serendipity comes the rare and unique, the innovative and delightfully unknown perfect masterpiece. When music lets go of the predictable, releases, or liberates itself from certainty of pattern or predictable stroke, only then does it venture into the unknown; only then may the genius of Serendipity coalesce into the uncharted territory of the perfect Masterpiece.

    When we consider the great masters and creators of jazz, rock, or classical music, for example, we see that the great musicians follow the “chaos theory” in music quite profoundly. And when they have taken a slightly divergent course as proposed by “chaos theory”, only then did they reach a place that transcends what JFK called “the stale, dank atmosphere of normalcy”. Only then did they re-direct and advance the currents of our time. When that happens, profound spiritual, social, and cultural changes occur.

    We live in a time of rapid, often chaotic change. Perhaps, we live in a time where science and art, where the technical and creative, where the image, the design and the real, where “The Head and the Heart”, truly converge into an harmonious co-existence of “order out of chaos”.