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Zen Sounds 068: Kubik Kollektiv & Deep Japanese Jazz
A weekend in Berlin provided chance encounters with some amazing music
Spending last weekend in Berlin, I started my Saturday with some amazing coffee (Ethiopian natural by Tesfaye Bekele) and a visit to my favorite record store Bis Aufs Messer in Friedrichshain. They not only carry a great selection of experimental music, jazz and punk, but they usually have the newest issue of my favorite music magazine The Wire as well.
This time, I bought a stack of back issues that the store owner kept in a box below the crates. Among other issues (Basinski! Lopatin! Micachu!), I found this 2021 issue with one of my favorite artists on the cover.
Wait, I thought, what exactly is Liz Harris aka Grouper wearing here?
Browsing her Instagram, I stumbled across a post of the cover, and in the comments the experimental musician Roy Montgomery – a close friend and collaborator – explains that Harris found that “very practical road workers jacket as a discarded item” on a visit to New Zealand.
Turns out one of my favorite musicians shares my gorpcore fashion ideals. Well at least we both believe you should always wear functional clothes, even on the day of what might be the most important magazine cover shoot of your career.
By the way, Harris is playing a few shows under her Nivhek moniker in Europe this fall, with a performance called ENGINE and visuals by experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino. As Nivhek, she released the dark ambient album “After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house” in 2019, but here’s hope there will be another Nivhek release before the tour. I will definitely go see her at Berlin’s Silent Green venue.
Kubik Kollektiv @ temp. Bauhaus-Archiv
That same night, I went out for Berlin’s “long night of museums”, which basically works like a gallery flat-rate for the whole city. 75 venues participated this year, and most of them set up a special programme for the occasion. Going from venue to venue by public transport, for the first time since the end of the pandemic, it truly felt like everyone was on their feet.
The temporary Bauhaus-Archiv celebrated the second season of their podcast “About Bauhaus”. Improv group Kubik Kollektiv was invited to perform two 50 minute sets, with founder/leader Ralf Merten on prepared piano, Alex Matwijuck on guitars, Max Mahlert on drums and my dear friend Jan Hennig on modular synthesizer. The collective is also responsible for the music interludes on the podcast. Before the concert, Merten briefly spoke about the role of music and composition at Bauhaus in the 1920s.
Though the design school didn’t have its own musical department, music was quite important for Walter Gropius. Regular concerts and improv sessions went down in Weimar and Dessau, focusing on modern classical at first, later pivoting to jazz. When the Nazis closed down the school, Bauhaus teachers Stefan Wolpe and Josef Albers found exile in America, and their Black Mountain College was attended by the next wave of experimental pioneers like Morton Feldman and John Cage.
Kubik Kollektiv set out to explore the Bauhaus sound, not what it might have sounded like in the 1920s, but what it could sound like today. The collective improvises on very rudimentary briefs – which requires virtuosity, experience and excellent communication skills. It mostly worked in this instance. Moments of pure ambience morphed into energy fields, built from intense interplay between Mahlert’s stumbling free-form drums and Hennig’s surprising synth patches. At the peak of both sets, the group fell into muscular Motorik rhythms that gave Merten and Matwijuck room to explore how to shape the sound and even change its direction by adding colour. Oh, and everyone seemed to have fun, on stage and in the audience, which is not a given at such an event.
Up on the balcony, I spotted three Zoomers in their early 20s sitting through the whole second set, not saying a word to each other, not even looking at their phones, just listening deeply, and then afterwards shyly approaching the band to tell them how much they loved the music and that they had never heard something similar before. Such moments are precious. I remembered leaving my first free jazz concert when I was their age. It was like someone had opened a crack in the door I hadn’t even seen before. Nothing was the same.
Deep Japanese Jazz @ Bar Neiro
The next day, deeply hidden in a Berlin-Mitte backyard, we finally found Bar Neiro, a small living room bar inspired by Japan’s jazz kissa tradition. Provided with a vintage analogue hi-fi system, it’s a place where people go to have a classic cocktail or a local craft beer and listen to vinyl records.
Interestingly enough, a dedicated scene of jazz lovers had grown in Japan since the end of World War II. As it was difficult and expensive to buy imported records, most would listen at jazz kissa, dim-lit establishments that played full albums on high quality equipment. (Renowned music writer Ted Gioia has just dedicated an issue of his Honest Broker newsletter to the kissa.) Its heydays are long gone, but in recent years, it has kind of celebrated a comeback, not just in Japan, but in the Western world as well.
After sitting down at our table, we quickly recognized harpist Nala Sinephro’s ambient jazz masterpiece “Space 1.8”. The second record proved a bit more difficult to identify. We asked the friendly bartender, and he handed us the cover of “Topology”, a 1984 collaboration of Japanese pianist Makoto Terashita and American saxophonist Harold Land. It sounded tremendous on a Garrard 301 turntable and Altec A5 speakers.
I love the idea of chance discoveries of music. Just being somewhere, alone or with someone, listening to something. Human memory works that way. Now I will forever think of “Topology” as the record I discovered this one night at this secret kissa in the second floor of a backyard house, with a friend and two bottles of locally brewed, non-alcoholic Indian Pale Ale. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
It also made me go back to some other 1970s and 1980s Japanese jazz albums over the next day. I had discovered them through an outstanding compilation on crate-digger indie label BBE: “J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz from Japan 1969–1984”. Curated by two serious long-time collectors of the genre, Tony Higgins and Mike Peden, it unearthed many rarities. None of these tracks had ever been officially released outside of Japan before. The original records, privately pressed in limited numbers, were highly sought-after among enthusiasts.
Japanese musicians from that era displayed a high level of virtuosity and dedication, and some of them even became internationally successful. Influenced by the traditions of hard bop and modal jazz, current developments in spiritual jazz and jazz fusion, and elements of Japanese culture and tradition, they created some of the most beautiful pieces of jazz music ever heard.
Take the compilation’s opener “Earth Mother” by Koichi Matsukaze Trio and Toshiyuki Daitoku, a powerful, bass-led anthem taken from an album of the same name, released in 1978. Or take drummer Takeo Moriyama’s “Kaze”, a groovy modal tune from his “East Plants” album (1983), based on hypnotic layers of percussion, drums and bass. Or “Dead Letter” by Tohru Aizawa Quintet, taken from their super obscure “Tachibana” album recorded in 1975. It was the four students’ only album, financed and pressed by the wealthy businessman Ikujiroh Tachibana who intended to use the records as business cards.
The first “J Jazz” compilation was quite successful, so over the next years, BBE produced two more installments and started re-releasing full albums in their “J Jazz masterclass” spin-off series. 16 rare Japanese jazz albums have been reissued so far. I haven’t listened to them all, but I assume they’re mostly high quality, as the first couple of entries in the series all sounded superb. I’ve compiled them into a handy Spotify playlist to browse and listen.
“Topology” by Makoto Terashita and Harold Land, the record we heard at Bar Neiro, is one of these rare original records that received the full re-release treatment in 2019. Its outstanding opener “Dragon Dance” had previously been included on Volume 2 of the compilation series.
Originally released on cult label Aketa’s Disk in 1984, the album fuses elements of hard bop, modal jazz and spiritual jazz. For a few minutes, we believed we were hearing an early 1960s record, but with the start of the conga solo towards the end of “Dragon Dance”, we knew it was probably a much later recording. The album was indeed recorded on June 11, 1984, at Aoyama Studio, Tokyo, with a quintet led by Land and Terashita, including Yasushi Yoneki on bass, Mike Reznikoff on drums, and Takayuki Koizumi on percussion. Five of the six songs on the album were penned by Terashita, while the sixth song, “World Peace” is a calm Land composition, reminiscent of early 1970s Cosmic Echoes.
Land, who was in his mid-50s at the time of recording, had already released twelve albums as a band leader and played with a lot of greats from the 1950s to the 1970s. Terashita, in his early 30s then, had just recorded one album, his promising 1978 debut “Great Harvest”. “Topology” is a chance meeting between a creative Japanese prodigy and a seasoned American player, united through their mutual love for adventurous, dynamic jazz music.
One more thing (actually, two)
Currently enjoying two hip-hop albums: DJ Muggs’ “Soul Assassins 3: Death Valley” contains guest verses from old school legends and new school icons over Muggs’ gritty, dark production. While “SA3” can be streamed and downloaded anywhere (and vinyl ordered on the SA website), the new Earl Sweatshirt + The Alchemist album “Voir Dire” is exclusively available as some sort of NFT. I’ll leave you with this video here – Earl and MIKE dropping ultra-complex rhyme schemes over one of these patented drumless soul loops from the Santa Monica labs. Rap music doesn’t get much better these days.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze