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Makoto Kuriya left Japan to study linguistics, came back a jazz virtuoso

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 28 October 2017, 14:18 IST

When he first left Japan for the US to study linguistics, music was still just a hobby for Makoto Kuriya. In fact, much like Indian parents, his father expressly forbade him from taking up music professionally. However, during his time in the US, Kuriya grew into one of the finest jazz pianists on the planet.

Building up his repertoire at clubs, private parties and concerts, his quicksilver fingers and musical understanding soon had him playing alongside Grammy-winning jazz heavyweight Chuck Mangione.

After a decade spent lighting up the American jazz circuit, Kuriya returned to Japan to forge his own legacy, and helped build the Japanese jazz scene into one of the world's most well known.

Performing in Delhi as part of the Japan Foundation's ongoing Japan Festival, Catch met up with Kuriya to find out how he got his start in jazz, his musical influences, and his thoughts on the Japanese jazz scene. These are the edited excerpts:

Ranjan Crasta: While you later studied music, you first moved to the US to pursue a course in linguistics. What drew you to linguistics, and do you see your musical ability as a logical extension to your affinity for language?

Makoto Kuriya: Many people do wonder about this, because both speaking and music is a form of language. We have sheet music, which is written language, and we make sound, which is verbal language.

We play jazz, which is improvisational music. On the other hand, every time we speak, we also improvise based on certain rules that you learn as you grow up or, for your second or third language, you learn in school or by training yourself. We improvise when we play jazz, so every time we speak we're sort of playing jazz. That's a cool relationship, which not many people realise.

In classical music, they play strictly as written. That's a little bit far from what we do, so I'd say that playing jazz comes closest to speaking in daily life.

RC: You were drawn to jazz during your time in the US. How did this come about?

MK: Before going to the States, I already had a strong interest in jazz – both listening and trying to play what I heard. But in the States I went to college to study linguistics, because my father was against studying music. He had wanted to be a professional musician and failed, so he didn't want to see anymore failure in his life, especially for his son. This is why he was totally against me going into the music business.

So I pretended I was studying a regular thing like linguistics, but at the same time I was going to music school. I practiced by myself, just trying to learn music.

Later, people asked [me] to do some sessions, there were some party jobs, concerts, and club performances where they asked me to play. I did so many live concerts and all this experience accumulated.

RC: While jazz is primarily seen as Western music, Japan's own jazz heritage is almost a century old. Did Japanese jazz influence you during your formative years as a musician?


MK: Jazz is supposed to be really creative, and you get influenced from a lot of people. If you hear great artists, piano or guitar players or anything, you want to sound like that and it influences your own thoughts or your way of playing. That's natural.

I've always been open to global styles. Japanese jazz somehow absorbed American jazz. Japanese Jazz started out as a copy of American jazz. So it made no sense for me to learn from Japanese jazz, it would make more sense to learn directly from American jazz.

RC: Despite thriving in the Western jazz scene for over a decade, you eventually chose to move back to Japan which has has a considerably smaller jazz scene. Why?


MK: I decided to leave America more for personal reasons than musical ones. I went back to Japan when I turned 30. before that, I never tried to play music in japan. I was so removed from Japan. When I was 29-30, I was doing well in the States and everything was so interesting and I was playing with Grammy-winning artists.

However, around the same time the Soviet empire broke up, the Berlin wall fell and the Japanese emperor had died. It was a really big change of era. It made me look at my own life, what was I doing? Everyday was fun, nothing but fun. Should I just continue this happy life in the States, or should I be more serious about my future and maybe go back to Japan and try and build a career there?

I looked at myself and decided to go back to my own country. So its personal, but its all due to all these political things.

RC: Throughout the course of Japan's tryst with jazz, there has always been push back from cultural purists who saw it as an alien art form. Now, with a growing, thriving jazz scene, do you feel Japanese jazz is finally being accepted as native rather than alien?


MK: About 25 years ago, when Japan had more economic power, all the important jazz recordings were sponsored and produced by Japanese companies like EMI, Universal or Sony.

Even for legendary American artists like Wynton Marsalis, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, all those legends' recordings were done by Japanese companies, because back then America couldn't afford it, but Japan could. So, in the economic sense, it looked like Japan owned one of America's greatest art forms.

It was a strange era, you know. So many great recordings and artists were produced by Japanese companies and Japan was the greatest jazz producing and consuming country. So many people were buying jazz records.

Japanese people are very interested in jazz. I dont know why, honestly. It is a mystery, because look at China – they have hip hop, they have rock, but they haven't gotten into jazz.

RC: How does Japanese jazz differ from its Western counterpart?


MK: If I can look back, I regret that we haven't applied much Japanese traditional music into jazz. Many Japanese jazz artists are still trying to play like Americans, that's the sad truth. European jazz artists are different, they don't want to sound American.

We have so many great figures like Sadao Watanabe who are world renowned jazz artists from Japan, but it's kind of sad because we're trying to be American.

RC: You have performed with some real jazz luminaries like Chuck Mangione and Herbie Hancock. What has been your favourite collaboration thus far?

MK: My favourite collaboration is every single time I play with great artists. That's the best time. It doesn't matter which instrument they play, or even if they sing. All music is great, from Classical to Hip-hop and Rock, RnB, Blues, whatever.

For me, there are only two types [of collaborators] – good musicians or bad musicians. If I play with bad musicians, I waste my life and time. I would rather spend my time playing with great musicians which is why I have to practice and be a better musician tomorrow.

RC: The ensemble has collaborated with many artists across genres. Is there any artist you are particularly keen on collaborating with in the future and why?


When I was in the States, I did a concert with Ustad Zakir Hussain, I'd really like that to happen again. He is nothing but amazing.

(The Creative Jazz Ensemble led by Makoto Kuriya performs at 7PM on 28 October at the Stein Auditorium in IHC, Delhi)

First published: 28 October 2017, 14:18 IST