Yūji Itsumi, photographer, writer, blogger, and a key figure in the documentation of Japanese free jazz, passed away at his home in Yokohama on June 18, 2019.
Itsumi was born in 1947 in Izumo on the Japan Sea coast, an isolated and rural part of the country known for the ancient Izumo Taisha shrine and its earthy buckwheat soba noodles. He came up to Tokyo in the late 1960s to study photography, duplicating the journey from the rural provinces to the major urban centres that was made by millions of young Japanese in this period. The world of commercial photography was where he would make his living for the rest of his life, shooting advertisements and publicity materials for major Japanese corporations including Sony, Kenwood, Nissan, and Mitsubishi.
In Tokyo, Itsumi would also encounter the Japanese free jazz scene and he began to document some of its major figures, particularly those whose primary expressive medium was solo performance. He talks about being drawn to the sense of isolation that he saw through his camera lens. His first, and one of his deepest connections, was with the bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa, whom he began to shoot in 1973. Itsumi shot the cover for Yoshizawa’s 1975 solo album, Outfit (Trio Records, 1975), and he would continue to document Yoshizawa throughout the rest of the bassist’s life, including a fantastic series shot on a stormy, winter beach in Niigata in the mid 1970s.
Through Yoshizawa, Itsumi came into contact with the notorious Japanese jazz critic and promoter Aquirax Aida. That relationship would lead to a role documenting Derek Bailey’s first tour of Japan in 1978 and Itsumi would also shoot the cover photographs for the LP document of that tour, Duo & Trio Improvisation (Kitty Records, 1978).
Itsumi documented one other major free jazz player during this period: the alto saxophonist Kaoru Abe. Itsumi recalled going to see Abe playing solo at clubs like Pulcinella and Kid Airaku Art Hall in the early 1970s. Later in the decade, once he got to know Abe and became a drinking buddy, Itsumi began to shoot him too, his photography feeding into the mythos around the saxophonist. His black and white shots of Abe are uniquely resonant documents of light and shadow and the acts of musical creation: the concentrated moments before sound begins to take shape, the motion of the musician as he plays, and the exhaustion and emptiness of the aftermath. Abe is captured alone, often in the middle of shadowy studio surroundings. There is a marked and intensely moving sense of alienation and separation to many of these photos. Particularly resonant are those that captured him playing his alto alone on the banks of the Tama River in western Tokyo, blowing hard next to some pilings between road and rail bridges. Similar scenes of Abe practising next to the river are captured in Kōji Wakamatsu’s 1978 film Serial Rapist (Jūsannin renzoku bōkōma). Itsumi managed to record some lighter moments too. One of my favourites is of Abe, overcome with laughter as he sits at a piano keyboard next to Takehisa Kosugi and Yoshizawa.
Itsumi’s deep engagement with free music continued after Abe’s death, both as a documentarian but also as a more active participant in musical creation. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he shot a series of remarkably intimate, close up black and white portraits of musicians involved with free jazz and free improvisation. The photos ran in the PSF-published magazine G-Modern, alongside short and perceptive interviews between Itsumi and the musicians. Itsumi shoots the musicians off-stage, often at home, in relaxed and revelatory postures. PSF and Itsumi gathered 29 of these portraits together to publish as a limited-edition book Jiyū no Ishi (Free Will) in 2003. The musicians featured include Motoharu Yoshizawa, Sabu Toyozumi, Tenko, Masayoshi Urabe, Tamio Shiraishi, Kazuo Imai, Keiji Haino, as well as selection of visiting improvisers: Derek Bailey, Barre Phillips, Lee Konitz, Peter Brötzmann, George Lewis, Butch Morris, Han Bennink...
In the 2000s, Itsumi also promoted a series of events which featured him in conversation with improvisers, or improvisations that engaged with projected photographic work. PSF documented these activities on the Chi no Kioku (Memories of Soil) (2003) video with Masayoshi Urabe, Junichirō Ōguchi, and Kazuo Imai, and on the Undecided CD compilation (2004).
G-Modern also ran a series of Itsumi’s non-music photography, under the title Kyōryū no Hone (Dinosaur Bones): gorgeous rural and urban landscapes shots in black and white from Itsumi’s travels. Images from this series, shot in 1975 in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, then a rundown district home to Turkish immigrants, were used as the cover artwork for Itsumi’s other major contribution to the history of free jazz in Japan, the “J.I. Collection”. This was a series of archival recordings that captured ten previously unknown live sets by Abe, Yoshizawa, Masayuki Takayanagi, and Mototeru Takagi. The recordings dated from 1969 to 1973, the peak of Japanese free jazz’s first intense period of creativity and none had even circulated amongst fans prior to their rediscovery by Itsumi and PSF. The title for the series came from the initials of Jin Ishitani, a teenage free jazz obsessive who dragged his recording set-up around Tokyo clubs in the period, recording sets for his own enjoyment. These cassettes came into Itsumi’s possession in the early nineties and he and Hideo Ikeezumi at PSF immediately realised their importance. There was a stark, emotionally devastating truth about the synergies created between Itsumi’s photos of Kreuzberg: deep enveloping blacks and fuzzy grey shots of empty cobbled streets, bombed out lots, rundown buildings, and the rediscovered “dinosaur bones” of the Japanese free jazz from that period. A framing that took in dereliction, loss, fervent creativity, and memory.
Those were the themes that Itsumi returned to frequently in his blog too, limning different emotional spaces through his resonant images and his terse, thoughtful prose. He covered lots of ground: his love of jazz, Bill Evans, Albert Ayler, his obsession with solo performances of classical music, memories of his past, flowers and their meanings for him. One paragraph about the famous Japanese photographer and critic Takuma Nakahira lingers:
There was a period when I was obsessed with Nakahira’s critical writing and photographs. He wandered at the borders of his sanity through drugs and alcohol, losing nearly all his memories. But he kept on taking photographs. And the photos he finally arrived at were those that refused to accept language. The photographs themselves said all that could be said; he took photos that spoke. When I revisit my memories of his work now, I can remember virtually nothing of his writing. But his photographs… even the earliest ones he took, my memories of them are fragmentary but intensely detailed.
Itsumi published his 1970s photos of Abe and of Kreuzberg in a 2013 volume entitled Out to Lunch (K&B Publishers). He published Flowers of Romance, a volume of his colour photography of flowers, in 2017.
Deepest Thanks to Alan Cummings for writing this piece.
Yūji Itsumi's blog can still be viewed at: http://itsumiyuji.blog65.fc2.com/