Courtesy of the artist
A detail from the cover of Minoru Muraoka's collaboration with Herbie Mann, Gagaku and Beyond.
A detail from the cover of Minoru Muraoka's collaboration with Herbie Mann, Gagaku and Beyond. Courtesy of the artist
It took some time to count the stamps on my passports, but it turns out I've averaged one trip to Japan per year for the past decade. While crack-of-dawn sushi at Daiwa's in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market and journeys to Hakone in search of the best onsens (rustic, mineral spring-fed inns) were on my early "must do" lists, as a record collector one of my main desires was to dig deeper into Japanese jazz.
Prior to my first trip to Japan, I'd searched for years for Headhunter Paul Jackson's Japan-only Black Octopus album and, upon sourcing a copy, was disappointed in its plainness. While in college, I'd heard the superb, now-reissued (but always out of reach in its original form) Black Renaissance album by the late pianist and arranger Harry Whitaker. I'd run through the Japanese jazz label Three Blind Mice's well-distributed catalog.
But most of my early ventures through the used bins in Tokyo and Osaka's then-plentiful boutiques led to more American jazz scores than Japanese ones. Besides the wonderful novelty of the Yamaha-sponsored Electro Keyboard Orchestra's solitary album and the official Japanese issue of Norwegian jazz vocalist Karin Krog's We Could Be Flying, I didn't hear any Japanese jazz worth shelling out the yen.
That was until a fateful visit to Shinjuku's Universounds, where the shop's proprietor, Yusuke Ogawa — a funk 45 collector with whom I'd been swapping since the 1990s — acknowledged that he loved "deep jazz" from the '60s and '70s. Wishing to illustrate the Japanese brand of this stuff, he pulled out a stack of wax from behind the counter.
One of the records was Minoru Muraoka's Bamboo. I'd not come across Muraoka's name in any of my searches, so I listened patiently to the koto (a stringed instrument similar to a zither) introduction to "The Positive and the Negative." A rolling bass line set the stage for funky-enough drums that soon gave way to Muraoka's shakuhachi, or bamboo flute. A cascading koto sat in for chicken-scratched guitar. "What in the hell do you call this?" I asked. "Shakuhachi Jazz," Ogawa replied, with an "Isn't it obvious?" air. He then sheepishly admitted that the album wasn't for sale, as Muraoka's discography was extensive and his records were rare.
So, over the past seven years, I've made it a point to buy any Muraoka album I come across. Some are goofy attempts at crossover: His cover of the '30s jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne," for example, is far from essential. But when Muraoka stretched out in the psychedelic era of the late '60s through the mid-'70s, usually with his groups The Life Theaters and The New Dimensions, he created haunting, difficult-to-compare music that you file as "jazz" only by default. The dozen or so Muraoka albums that I've kept at home are by far my favorite examples of Japanese jazz.