Multi-instrumentalist Koichi Matsukaze was born in 1948 in the Shizuoka Prefecture. A musician with a busy schedule, he is still active these days, leading his own quartet, and other past or present activities include participations in the Shibuya Takeshi Orchestra, Essential Ellington, the Sax Workshop, and the Yuji Imamura group, among other projects. Recently, his unique sound has been reappraised by a European label. Two early albums, “Earth Mother” (1978) and “At The Room 427” (1975) have been reissued in 2018 and 2022, respectively, by the London-based label BBE Records. Matsukaze used to say: “If they call jazz Route 1, it has been from the start a very narrow road. Therefore, I have tried various things, and that route did not become broad. I was never satisfied by anything at all.”
In 1968, he entered the saxophone department of Kunitachi College of Music (Kunion). During these years, classmates included Kazutoki Umezu (saxophone, clarinet), Yoriyuki Harada (piano), Akira Omori (saxophone), Tamami Koyake (flute), Takashi Oi (vibraphone), Fumio Itabashi (piano). At the Kunion, Ryojiro Furusawa (drums), Takehiro Honda (piano), Seiichi Nakamura (saxophone, clarinet), Kenji Yoshida (trumpet) were seniors.
In his sophomore year, he started to practice playing jazz using the trio format, but without the bass, with Fumio Itabashi and Shunji Tsuda (drums). Later, with friends of his college jazz circle, he created a band and performed at several venues, such as the Kunion festivals, or during the morning at the Shinjuku Pit-Inn, or even at Shibuya Oscar, among others. While still in his teens, Kazumi Watanabe (guitar) sometimes joined the formation. Seiichi Nakamura introduced him to Yosuke Yamashita (piano), who also attended the Kunitachi College of Music, and who was already receiving serious attention after his graduation. In the following years, Matsukaze even played with Yamashita. However, in those times he was still a fledgling musician, and due to his lack of experience, no real opportunity arose where they could perform together.
It is a well-known fact that Sadao Watanabe (saxophone) returned from the United States in 1965. Quickly Watanabe became an important source of information about jazz methodology and the knowledge he acquired at Berklee College of Music. Frequently, jazz musicians took Watanabe’s private lectures, and many have benefited from this type of teaching, and seniors from Kunion kindly shared those teaching materials with Matsukaze.
In those days, the teaching of music in college classes was principally through classical music and students were not introduced to jazz, perceived as “depraved music”. However, curiously, “everyone was skillful”. To develop individuality, which appears an essential element for artists, the function of the university may not have been necessary, at least during that time. Matsukaze cites American culture as a contrast to the Japanese education system, which was permeated with the policy that personal ways were discouraged. By comparison, Tommy Snyder (drums), his bandmate of the Japanese rock band “Godiego”, has learned tap dance, piano, guitar and flute in his childhood, these complementary skills contributing to widen his sound. This contrasted strongly with the “only this specialty” approach, which appeared as the norm in the Japan of the time.
Soul Band, Rock, Pop …
On the theme “not only this specialty,” for Matsukaze, this was not limited to educational culture. While many Japanese jazz musicians of the time only knew a specific jazz style, or played one specific instrument, in that period, he already demonstrated diversity in instruments and style. In his twenties to thirties, for about ten years, he played as a member of the soul band Ebony West. The formation included various instruments, such as the saxophone, guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and two or three vocalists. They performed at the famous club Akasaka MUGEN (1968-86), considered as one of the birthplaces of disco and go-go clubs in Japan, and in Tachikawa, Fussa, Yokohama and Misawa. In those cities, resorts were frequented by American soldiers looking for dancing and entertainment. On certain nights, Matsukaze could continue to perform well past midnight, sometimes until 2 or 3 am, with other bands composed of Americans. He said “disco band took place of juke box.”
He also worked closely with rock musicians, such as Kazuo Takeda (guitar) of Creation, but also with Hideto Kano (guitar) of Gedo, and of course with Mickie Yoshino (keyboard) of Godiego. By playing in these Japanese rock bands he developed friendships with many musicians and some of them became close friends. Another collaboration includes a performance in a dinner show with pop singer Michiyo Azusa.
For someone listening only to jazz, this may sound very varied. In fact, this was not special at all. These contributions enable him to earn a living, and more importantly, this was positive for music. This may explain why Matsukaze often says “it is not good to play only jazz” to young musicians who learned jazz methodology in colleges and continue to limit their horizons after their academic training.
Tone, Playing Techniques, and Instruments
The musical gear of Matsukaze includes five alto saxophones (Yamaha, two Selmer, Crampon, Yanagisawa), three tenor saxophones (two Yanagisawa, Selmer), two soprano saxophones (two Yanagisawa), one baritone saxophone (he used that instrument only in Shibuya Takeshi Orchestra), four clarinets (two Yamaha, Crampon, Selmer), many flutes, a bamboo saxophone, and many reeds which are all maintained by artisans. He values the many differences between these instruments.
Characteristically, the sound of Matsukaze on the saxophone resembles a whispering, presenting a unique hoarse or frayed tone. But he stated about that tone “It is never intentional. If you love Ken Takakura (who is a famous Japanese actor), you never talk like him, do you?” That is, his tone is not his intention, but his original voice acquired by training. Rhythm and blues saxophonist King Curtis is Matsukaze’s favorite, especially his bright tone, but naturally Koichi Matsukaze’s tone is never the same as King Curtis. He has established his own voice, though it changes as time goes by. His first record as a leader, At The Room 427 (1975), was released when he was in his late twenties. It appears rather interesting to remark that the “rough tone” which can be heard on this album is not present anymore. Tone is the life of his sound and a source of his ideas.
The flute represents also one of the instruments that he uses extensively. Especially in his early recordings one can find the influence of Eric Dolphy, and he recognizes that element (for example, Matsukaze’s original tune, “Step” in Takeo Moriyama’s album Smile). Matsukaze points out Dolphy also must have been influenced by Marcel Moyse’s method (French flutist who wrote many etudes) in his quick phrases. Flute offers special mobility arising from short distances among keys, and a rhythm emerges by jumping. As a side note, one can appreciate that Dolphy devoted himself to contemporary music with the tune “Gazzelloni,” which was named after Italian flutist Severino Gazzelloni (recorded in his album “Out to Lunch”).
In his career, Matsukaze has had the opportunity to move to the United States. His classmate Yoriyuki Harada and Kazutoki Umezu moved to New York City in the heyday of the Loft Jazz scene, and even made the recording Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai in 1975. Just in passing, the predecessor of saxophonist Umezu in Sunny Murray’s band was David Murray and his successor appeared to be Keshavan Masklak (who also performs under the stage name Kenny Millions). However, Matsukaze preferred to remain in his native Japan, and recorded Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai Live in Masuda in 1976, representing that band. Sometimes Kazumi Watanabe joined the formation.
Although Matsukaze was invited to go to the US with Harada, he ultimately declined the invitation. Concerning this episode of his life, he comments: “There are many good musicians in America, while I always proceed slowly. I didn’t want to struggle in sludge. If I had moved to the US, I would have stopped music. It is alright to proceed in 30 years, not three. The best way for me is to do my favorite things slowly.”
Ties Between the Musicians
At the Kunion, Matsukaze said, “One by one, the number of musician fellows who performed together increased, and the elder musicians were kind.” Ties between the musicians were strong, and it has been always the same, even after they graduated from college. In those days, they often played baseball games or held private parties. Sometimes he made hand-rolled sushi with fish he bought in a nearby harbor, or meat buns using braised pork which he made by himself, meals he tasted from a tour in China as a member of Godiego. In a similar way, each friend brought food they were good at preparing. They even had a party in a sleeper train for a concert tour. He laughed saying “we were close friends almost in the same generation, we all seem to be getting old.”
Connections with Takeshi Shibuya (piano) were also made naturally. Hungover Shibuya came to see Matsukaze’s recording of Earth Mother in 1978, after staying in bassist Tamio Kawabata’s house. Interestingly, Matsukaze himself doesn’t remember that. Yoshio Kuniyasu (sax) introduced Matsukaze to Takeo Moriyama (drums), which led to his taking part in Moriyama’s album Smile in 1980 and inviting Moriyama into Matsukaze’s album Good Nature in 1981. He has been active in the Sax Workshop formation from the late 1970s to the early 1980s (a recording in 1982 was released as Sax Workshop). The group included the three saxophonists Matsukaze, Kazutoki Umezu, and Genji Sawai, as well as Hiroshi Matsui (guitar), Kurumi Shimizu (piano), Koichi Yamazaki (bass), and Takashi Miyasaka (drums). The band recently reunited with the same members except with Tamaya Honda filling in on drums. In the stage of Nemu Jazz Inn (Mie prefecture), which was organized by Osamu Uchida (an important figure also known as Dr. Jazz), they played “Lover Man” inviting Akira Omori as the fourth saxophonist.
Shibuya Takeshi Orchestra
Dr. Jazz Uchida organized a concert entitled “The World of Masayuki Takayanagi” in Hamamatsu in 1986. Although the main player Masayuki Takayanagi (guitar) could not play due to his poor health at that time, the group became the prototype for the Shibuya Takeshi Orchestra (Shibu-Oke). The arranger was Takeshi Shibuya, with the alto saxophonist Kenji Mori, trombonist Osamu Matsumoto and drummer Hideo Yamaki. Before that concert, Matsukaze has played once with Takayanagi in a chanson concert. Needless to say, Takayanagi’s style on that day was not free jazz.
In November 1987, Shibu-Oke launched at Shinjuku Pit-Inn. In the beginning, Kazunori Takeda (sax) and Tetsuji Yoshida (trumpet) joined, with two guitarists, Koichi Hiroki and Akihiro Ishiwatari, and later only Ishiwatari. As for saxophonists, Eiichi Hayashi left but rejoined, and Jun Usuba, Kosuke Mine and Kenta Tsugami also participated. Sadly, Tamio Kawabata passed away in 2000, and Katsumasa Kamimura was invited as the bassist. And Ryojiro Furusawa was replaced by Akira Sotoyama, who has been the drummer of Shibu-Oke until the present time. Essential Ellington represents another group involving Takeshi Shibuya. Compared to Shibu-Oke, their music is oriented toward a different sound. The band is mainly composed of four members: Shibuya, Mine, Matsukaze and the tuba player Takero Sekijima. Recently, the band members and the repertoire of Shibu-Oke proved to be stable in all the concerts. However, jazz aficionados are stirred up every time by their amazing sound. That is Shibu-Oke.
Free Jazz and Exploration of Methodologies
Koichi Matsukaze never presents his music as “free jazz” nor “free improvisation”. However, he recognizes that his music “can be called as free because every time in live performances the basic forms are broken.” A good example of this is toward the end of his original composition “w.w.w.” a 3/4 time piece. During live performances, he finds it “pleasant to step off the course.”
He then insists that it is not essential how the sound is categorized. He also compares exploration of methodologies to the Chuo Line of Tokyo. In a sense, this is similar to the Special Rapid Express, based only on determined chords, but it passes through Higashi-Nakano station. What is pleasant is to take a side trip, integrating some notes in-between. He sometimes uses random notes intentionally among stipulated sound.
Explorations have been made not only in his young age. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he tried various things, wanting to establish a new relationship between chord and scale. He also found new ideas listening to his album At The Room 427 again, almost 50 years after the recording, and even noted it is often interesting to misunderstand existing methodologies. Those meanderings back and forth correspond to the music philosophy of Koichi Matsukaze.
He remarked it is better to make part of himself/herself keeping his/her own pace, more than “much stronger, much faster and much higher” which seems often the natural path taken by younger musicians.
From Trio to Quartet and +1
After a few years, the quartet was composed of Makoto Kuriya (piano), Hiroaki Mizutani (bass) and Shota Koyama (drums), it became a trio after Kuriya left the band (“A Day in Aketa” recorded in 1993 and 94). Sometimes Hiroshi Minami (piano) joined.
Around the same time, he played in the group Guilty Physic led by Hiroshi Itaya (trombone) and made two unique albums. But Itaya died of suicide in 1996, an event that tragically compromised new works coming from this formation. His trio recorded the album Kaleidoscope in 1997, inviting guitarist Isao Miyoshi, with whom he played in Guilty Physic. Working with a guitarist was hardly a new endeavor for Matsukaze, as previously he played with Kazumi Watanabe and Mikihiko Matsumiya. Collaborations with Kazuhiko Tsumura and Takayuki Kato were also made after that album release.
When the band’s drummer changed from Shota Koyama to Akira Sotoyama, surprisingly, Matsukaze found it difficult to perform with him, and even considered it a kind of “cultural shock.” He felt frustrated, and continued to play with Sotoyama, which led to making indispensable elements of the current Koichi Matsukaze quartet, which is indeed pleasant.
The reason he invited Mikio Ishida (piano) followed a performance at Sapporo City Jazz with Shibu-Oke. Taking the recommendation of the organizer, he saw Ishida playing with Takashi Seo (bass) and Ittetsu Takemura (drums). Matsukaze praised his qualities as a good pianist.
This quartet has not made any album after the recording of Private Notes and Guesthouse De Hirune in 2005. Matsukaze states that a new recording will be a live performance, which must be due to his pride that live performances represent the best opportunities to share.
Text and photos by Akira Saito
Interview supported by Naoko Saito and Fumi Yoshida
Translation supported by Pierre Duchesne
Interviews on August 28, 2021 and April 10, 2022.
(This interview was originally made for JazzTokyo.)