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Kazuo Imai: "I enjoy music with tension."

An interview with Kazuo Imai by Hiroaki Akaoka

Photographs by Yuji Itsumi

In an epic, career-spanning interview, Kazuo Imai discusses the development of his work from the 1970s when he studied with two giants of the Japanese Avante Garde, Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, to his later Soloworks series and extended projects including Marginal Consort and the Kazuo Imai Trio. The interview provides a unique, inside perspective on some of the major streams in underground Japanese music in the late 20th to early 21st Century and one of its most distinctive artists.

This interview was originally published in G-Modern Magazine Volume 27, (Japan, June 2007). It was translated to English from Japanese for the first time ever by Taketo Shimada for Black Editions in 2020.

My first impression of Kazuo Imai: his stage presence is different from anyone, and he radiates intensity. He is one of the very few musicians who demonstrate an inseparable bond between iconoclasm and the inner strength it requires. His belief in his iconoclasm—a contemporary paradigm not many musicians deal with—is palpable. His remarks are extremely wide-ranging, it’s as if he is trying to show complex layers of his accumulated experiences to music listeners who tend to subscribe to certain historic narratives (including this interviewer).

The two names we can’t ignore when writing about Kazuo Imai are Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, but his experiences with them aren’t interchangeable, and his early development from more traditional jazz to free improvisation wasn’t linear. Right now we are experiencing a steady stream of past recordings by Takayanagi hitting the market, and I would like to point out that one of the more definitive views on Takayanagi are here in this interview. Imai’s speech is nonchalant but it sheds some light on wide ranging topics. We often start these interviews with short profiles of the artists being interviewed, but let’s skip that so you can get to the interview.

(Recorded February 2007)

* Translator's note: Akaoka and Imai use the honorific 'san' when referring to Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi, for ease of reading in English it has been removed here.

Days of the Jazz Coffee House

I’d like to start by asking why you didn’t get into rock music. I think many musicians who formed the foundation of free jazz in Japan started in jazz, but people born in the ‘50s such as yourself often got into rock music in their formative years.

Kazuo Imai (I): I started playing guitar when I was in middle school, and rock and folk music were very popular. We had a modern folk music club at the school, and they would cover the Brothers Four or Kingston Trio, and rock bands in our school played the Rolling Stones, so they only played cover songs. I was interested in their activities as a guitar player, but I couldn’t really get into their music since I didn’t know any of the songs they played. I didn’t own any records since we didn’t have a stereo at home. I had a friend who played guitar, and he would show me, ‘this is how you play the intro to Satisfaction, or he’d say ‘this song is great’, and taught me how to play the intro to Whole Lotta Love, but always just the intros. Since I didn’t know how those songs would go after the intros, the greatness of the songs was lost on me, so I didn’t practice the songs with him. Anyway, I enjoyed playing guitar so I was always playing and I remember buying music magazines like Guts *. I went to see the movie Woodstock when I was 15. I thought it was about a peaceful hippy culture, and the music didn’t really impress me. Oh, I thought Richie Havens was really good in it. Santana as well. The scene where The Who smashes the guitar I thought was too theatrical and made me uncomfortable, probably because I was too young to understand the cultural issues around it.

* A music magazine from Shueisha that specialized in rock music and often included guitar tabs and scores of popular songs from the time. Its first issue was published in 1969.

So that’s before you got into jazz?

I: Around the same time, a friend who was few years older took me to a jazz coffee house called Oreo in a neighborhood where I grew up. He was into bossa nova, such as Getz/Gilberto, but I preferred the type of jazz where they really play the instruments. I think Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime came out around that time, and I liked them better than typical rock music. Soon the owner of the coffee house memorized my face because I was requesting songs from Emergency! so much. That’s how I started to get into jazz, or music in general. What attracted me to jazz was its ad-libs. I think I was into the tension it provides. I have the same tendency now, I enjoy music with tension.

I assumed the beginning of your music was free jazz from the ‘60s, not the electrified jazz you mentioned.

I: I didn’t have any chance to listen to free jazz back then so I didn’t know anything about it. But it was exciting to hear someone say things like "the epitome of jazz is its free improvization". When I became a high school student, I befriended a guy who was studying jazz guitar, so he taught me what he knew. He told me there are theories to jazz improvization, so I bought a jazz theory book and studied it halfheartedly. It made me realize you have to know music theories to be able to play jazz guitar. The ad-lib looks free on its surface, but there are theories at its core and you play freely within that structure. I thought it wouldn't be easy to be able to play jazz guitar, but I knew I somehow wanted to be able to ad-lib. I’m still practicing even now.

Your interest in jazz started with an intuitive attraction.

I: I think so. At the time, I was devouring everything they play at the coffee house, Miles, Coltrane, Evans, Monk… I was looking down and swaying to the music. I would study the album cover to soak in the information, just your typical customer at any jazz coffee house really. I think I preferred things with intensity and drive. I wasn’t really aware of free jazz per se, but I really liked the era of Coltrane when his songs got increasingly longer, albums like Ole, Kulu Se Mama and Africa. He would just keep going and going. I felt cheated if there were more than three songs on one side of a record (laugh). The songs don’t feel that long when we listen to them now, but at the time his ambition really came through.

Taj Mahal Travellers

What are other important musical experiences you had besides the jazz coffee house?

I: It was in 1971, so I was sixteen then, I went for the first time to a rock festival at Hibiya Park’s open-air concert hall with a friend. There were so many bands playing all day, Zuno Keisatsu, The Happenings Four, Shinki Chen, and Shigeru Narumo, who’d play his guitar and organ simultaneously. Then Yuya Uchida, who was mc’ing the event, said “Next up is a group very much appreciated in the avant-garde music community.”, and introduced Taj Mahal Travellers. They all sat cross-legged on the stage, made noise with bamboo sticks, moved some air with a zabuton cushion, played a violin, or plucked on a contrabass laying on the floor, they played like that for about an hour. They seemed very unique and impressed me the most at the festival.

Were they very different from what you’d known until that time?

I: I thought they were pretty special. Whether it’s rock, jazz or folk music, they all have a certain structure and the music is performed within that parameter. Even some of the more experimental rock bands had drums and bass supporting their groove and they didn’t deviate from that formula. Taj Mahal Travellers focused on something else, they just made some sounds together and turned it into music. That was pretty refreshing to me… it made me happy because I was feeling uncomfortable about the fact that music required a certain set of rules. It was liberating to know you can make sound without any constraints and submit the result as music. I had no idea I’d be playing with them in the future.

Did it influence your development after seeing them play?

I: It didn’t make me want to start making music like them right away. I didn’t know where to start, and I really wasn’t thinking of starting a group. I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with anyway, I was happy noodling with my guitar and looking for music to listen to. I went to Oreo almost every day since I started high school so I just wanted to be able to play jazz guitar. I wasn’t into rock music, I don’t think I had any particular band that I liked.

There were some prog rock bands that incorporated jazz and improvisation around that time, were they of any interest to you?

I: They seemed very structured, like tracing a picture that’s already drawn, so they didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t feel much tension or passion in their sound I guess. I actually saw a Pink Floyd concert at Yoyogi Gymnasium when I was a freshman in high school. Some girl gave me a ticket, I wasn’t sure what to do with it but I didn’t want to waste it so I went. I didn’t enjoy the show that much (laugh). What I remember the most about the show is when they came out to the stage. They had a pre-recorded tape playing before the show, and they started playing to the tape as they came out to the stage. I remember lots of lights blinking. I was into the emotional side of music, so I thought using pre-recorded material was dishonest, and they didn’t improvise, so I didn’t have a good impression. I was a purist.

It seems to me you were into this idea of liveness, one of the main focuses for both the Taj Mahal Travellers and the type of jazz you liked.

I: I guess so. I think I was interested in things taking shape right in front of you. That’s what I liked about ad-libs anyway.