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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.

Meeting Masayuki Takayanagi

I: That same friend who took me to Oreo asked me if I wanted to take guitar lessons with him, so I called the teacher. He said we should talk at one of his concerts, so I went a couple of times to his shows but it didn’t go past saying hello. I didn’t think it would work, so I visited the Yamaha Jazz School where Sadao Watanabe* was the main teacher. Then, unlucky for me, Masayuki Takayanagi happened to be there (laugh).

Did you know anything about Takayanagi?

I: I had no idea. The first time I came across his name was when I read the pamphlet for the guitar school. Around that time, a friend gave me a ticket to a public viewing for a radio show called Nabesada and Jazz, I think he played songs from the album that was released around the same time. Takayanagi played on that record so he was performing with him. That was the first time I heard him play.

From the LP Sadao Watanabe [ Sadao Watanabe: Sadao Watanabe (CBS/Sony, SOPL-21-XJ) 1972]?

I: Right, from around the time when Sadao Watanabe was into African music. All the performers shook little shakers at the end of the show. African music was quite popular in Japanese jazz then.

What did you think about the music?

I: I actually don’t remember much. Takayanagi looked like a strange old man sitting in a chair, his guitar sounded like it was going through a fuzz pedal (laugh). I had no idea what he was doing, and he didn’t join the others with the shakers at the end of the show, so I thought, what’s his deal? It’s interesting when you think about it, he recorded Free Form Suites* that same year but he was playing with Sadao Watanabe as well.

* New Direction For The Arts: Free Form Suite (Three Blind Mice, TBM-10) 1972

You decided to take lessons from him as a result. Was it easy to adjust to his teaching style right away?

I: One of the first things he said was “I’d only teach you if you are willing to study music for the rest of your life”, and “Make up your mind by next week”. It was really nerve-wracking. I decided to study with him because I didn’t want him to think I was a quitter. I took his words seriously.

I can’t believe he approached a high school kid that way, and on top of that, you decided to be his student.

I: Surprising (laugh). Takayanagi couldn't care less about age, and it was a group lesson so he treated us all the same. He threw his wild-eyed glares at me every now and then, and I’d glare back at him like whaddayawant. It took some courage on my part to do that, I was 17 after all (laugh). I have no idea what others thought of him. Not many people dropped out even after he said things like “I’d only teach you if you are willing to study music for the rest of your life”. There were probably around 12 people in the class.

How old were the other students?

I: Everyone was older. I think I was the youngest in the class until I was 20 or so. I eventually became the lone remaining student after two years. They all kind of flaked out. I mean, it is kind of perplexing when the first things he said were “Don’t even think about playing commercial music,” “The study of music is expensive and time-consuming,” and “You can’t support yourself if you want to play real music.” What can you do then? He also told us “You can’t stop coming to class until I say so,” and “If you quit in the middle, don’t tell anyone that you studied with me because it’d come back to haunt me.” He said, “Don’t call me professor, people who get called that are up to no good,” so I always called him Takayanagi-san. I think the contents of his curriculum was the main culprit of everybody quitting.

On one hand he said "study music for the rest of your life" but he also told you not to play anything commercial, how do you reconcile those two?

I: I think he meant aspire to play music that sounds real to you, like trying to express your emotional reactions when you face social injustices for example. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what he meant at the time, but ‘real music’ sounded attractive. I didn’t think or understand how to make a living from music or anything like that. I was living with my parents, it wasn’t really a pressing issue for me. It eventually became my concern, it still is at my ripe old age. Anyway, one of his core beliefs was “I’m here to teach technique, I’m not teaching music." He wanted us to know that you ought to listen to music on your own. Listen to good music and read good books. Practice your instrument, listen to music, and read books—those were the three pillars of music study with him.

Was there any recommendation from him in terms of music to listen to or books to read?

I: He told us to buy two things in the beginning, a music journal called Ongaku Geijutsu*, and Moments Musicaux by Adorno. I don’t think he recommended any music. Sometimes he’d play us some tunes when he had a record with him that someone happened to return to him. I remember Spirits by Lee Konitz, Svengali by Gil Evans and some Jim Hall records. I thought Konitz in Spirits was just brilliant. He never told us to emulate what he does though. He told us to emulate ad-libs by great musicians, and analyze the methods as well as their tendencies. It was the same way when he assigned us books to read. There are more details about his teaching method in the recently published collection of his writings Han Ongaku Ronshu**. To get back to what his lessons consisted of, he divided his teaching into two main sections, technique and mechanics, so we did a lot of mechanical repetitions. The technique is about how to express yourself, and the mechanics are about how to operate your instrument with precision. We used five books of etudes for classical guitar and we learned to play them with a guitar pick, it was a jazz guitar school after all. There weren’t any jazz songs to be found in those books so many students decided to quit. In Takayanagi’s mind, it was about learning precise picking techniques so you can deal with all kinds of music. It was about being a professional guitar player. It didn’t occur to me then, but I think it’s a good structure for learning how to play guitar. I’m teaching guitar now with this method and I like the simplicity of it. I hope it doesn't sound like promotion but everyone should try it. We also had a history class once a month, we used The Jazz Book by Joachim-Ernst Berendt as a textbook for the class. We can’t play jazz without knowing its history, free jazz is nothing special or difficult, it emerged as a form of progression and you can understand it if you understand what preceded it.

*Japanese music journal, published from 1946 to 1998

**Loosely translates to Collection of Universal Music Theories ISBN-10: 4901477293, 2006

I want to be clear, we talked about noise and free jazz, but he never taught us how to play them. I don’t think there were many students who wanted to play free jazz, but I was into it so we talked about free jazz a lot.

So Takayanagi didn’t reject students even if their motive was to learn to play something he himself would criticize?

I: He didn’t do that. Occasionally he would say "this music is boring" but he didn’t push his opinion on us. He left it up to us. His lesson was about learning the techniques of guitar playing. He also said you can be great at something insignificant. Most of the students didn’t last long though.

Being a Roadie

When you think about the type of music scene in the ‘70s that Takayanagi was involved in, one can’t help but imagine it being cliquey (politically), and we’d think there were significant core beliefs in each of those cliques, so it’s pretty surprising that he didn’t force his beliefs on others that were close to him.

I: Yamaha Music School was like that, but Renjuku wasn’t. I’d imagine most of the students were affected by Takayanagi’s thought one way or the other since there were lots of discussions. I for sure learned a lot from him.

Is it the way you think?

I: I think it’s the framework of how you think. He used to say things like “Music is an expression of an idea. An idea could be timeless but an expression should be molded to a generation.” and “You need to have your point of view on music, and it should relate to your worldview.”

He didn’t force you to think like him, but maybe it’s kind of like "children learn from their parents"?

I: Maybe. His radicalism was inescapable, and it affected some of us for sure, but most of the students weren’t really interested in talking about philosophy. They just wanted to be able to play jazz on a stage. But he didn’t expel students for that, he was giving us lessons for profit after all. I agreed with many of his views, but it wasn’t like you had to agree with him to learn from him. I also started to help him with his shows only a few months after I started taking lessons from him. So that was pretty big for me. It was the first show where he used the rotary amp from Yamaha, I think it was a concert for the anti-Vietnam war movement. The Yamaha amp was too heavy for one person to carry, so he enlisted some of us for help. And I became his regular roadie when his monthly concert series with New Direction Unit moved from Aoyama Tower Hall to Shibuya Jean-Jean*.

*A small theater in Shibuya. It opened in 1969 and closed its doors in April 2000. It regularly hosted shows by Maki Asakawa, Akihiro Miwa, Noriko Awaya, Shuji Terayama, and Chikuzan Takahashi.

So that became another learning venue for you outside of the lessons.

I: I learned a lot. It really blew my mind when I first heard him play in those concerts. I didn’t know he played music like that. It was in a music hall, so it sounded really expansive even though it was very loud. I saw Mass Projection there, and it was really superb. It made me unreasonably happy to know this kind of music exists in this world. I was listening backstage and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was the same when I first heard Taj Mahal Travellers play. I wonder why.

You mean to say you’d never listened to any of Takayanagi’s music before that?

I: I really hadn’t. The only time I heard him play was at that Sadao Watanabe concert (laugh). In terms of his records, I knew about A Jazzy Profile of Jojo*, but that’s all I knew. I got hooked to free improvisation then. I didn’t think it was difficult or hard to understand.

*Masayuki Takayanagi: A Jazzy Profile of Jojo (Victor World Group, SMJX-10096) 1970

You were both his student and a roadie at that point, did you have time to do anything else?

I: By the time I was a senior in high school I was helping him for most of the projects he was involved in, but he didn’t play that many shows though so it wasn’t too bad. All I thought about was playing guitar, I even took my guitar to a school field trip so I could practice and prepare for the next lesson. My life revolved around my once-a-week lesson with Takayanagi. I was also trying to learn about music as much as I could, so I was listening to all kinds of music.

You were starting to expand your musical horizons.

I: He didn’t tell me what to listen to, but the music journal he told me to read, Ongaku Geijutsu, was my source of information. I even started listening to ethnic music, since they wrote about it as well as contemporary classical music. I often listened to radio programs like Gendai no Ongaku (Contemporary Music Hour) and Sekai no Minzoku Ongaku (Ethnic Folk Music of the World). Ethnic music programs by Fumio Koizumi* were very informative and I learned a lot from them. Sometimes I was able to wake up very early to catch Baroque Ongaku (Baroque Music), but that didn’t happen often. I also went to a bunch of concerts that I read about. Goethe-Institute Tokyo used to host free concerts on contemporary music, I remember seeing electronic music and biofeedback music concerts there. I was able to listen to Indian folk music at the Japan-India Association. At one concert, an older gentleman said “that song had a pretty unique rhythmic structure,” and he taught me how to count the beats in Indian music. I probably stood out in my high school uniform. Since we’re talking about the books Takayanagi recommended—he told me to read an essay on jazz in Moment Musicaux by Adorno. Adorno basically defined jazz as a dance music, Takayanagi agreed with that notion, but he also wanted to define jazz as its own art form. He often said improvisational ad-libbing in jazz needs to be recognized as an art form. I thought about it constantly. I agreed with most of his ideas, because the ad-libs in jazz are what got me interested in the first place, and it’s so hard to do.

*Fumio Koizumi (1927-83): Japanese ethnomusicologist.

That’s where everything kind of clicked—your early fascination and the music of Takayanagi.

I: Right, so I was able to listen to him talk about music without any problem. I thought Adorno’s writings are really interesting, I especially enjoyed reading his writings that dealt with musical and cultural issues. I found a bit of Takayanagi-ism in Adorno’s writing when he talked about the relationships between music, society, and people. I think the issue of the reification of music can still be relevant today, even though the music industry and other cultural industries are omnipresent and our societies are much more complex. I was interested in the whole Frankfurt School - which Adorno was part of - though people criticized them as being a bit formulaic. It’s so hard to be independent now, it feels like every conceivable type of music is kneaded into one big mound and interconnected. Your individual character and intention are almost invisible among other records in record stores, they are all numbers inside their database anyway… I think I went way off topic, sorry about that.

So to get back to ad-libbing in jazz, I never copied what Takayanagi was doing. He told his students to copy great ad-libbed passages by great performers and analyze them afterward. I think Takayanagi himself studied that way. He told us to listen to someone else’s work if we had time to listen to his music.

As for me, I was fixated on free jazz and improvisation, so I wasn’t too invested in emulating and analyzing the past greats. As a result, I still can’t play jazz properly.

Was it more like he was someone who shared similar topics of interest rather than a teacher who showed you how to become someone you want to be?