Pianist Infuses Jazz with Japanese Spirit

The Wall Street Journal, Oct 8, 1991

By John Schofield,

Tokyo — There was a time when jazz pianist Masahiko Satoh would have rather been Oscar Peterson. It was 1960, and most Japanese jazzmen were pretending to be someone else. There was no shame in it. After an initial exchange of pleasantries in those days, Mr. Satoh recalls with a smile, even musicians meeting for the first time would get right to the point: “By the way, who are you imitating?”
But by the fall of that same year, after an awkward encounter at the old A-1 Club in Tokyo’s Ginza district, Mr. Satoh went out on an artistic limb. He was asked that evening, on the spur of the moment, to play piano at a reception for the real Oscar Peterson. “I kept playing and, all of a sudden, I turned around and Oscar Peterson was standing behind me,” he remembers. “That was a shocking moment for me, and I came to the conclusion that, if I played like Oscar Peterson, I could never play in front of Oscar Peterson. So I decided I shouldn’t play like anyone else. I should follow my own style.”
In the three decades since, that innovative and original style has earned Mr. Satoh prestigious awards, as well as critical and popular acclaim. The 50-year-old Tokyo native has played from Montreux to Carnegie Hall. He has more than 100 albums to his credit, including 45 as a performer, and has worked closely over the years with internationally known performers such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vocalist Nancy Wilson. (His 1990 album, “Amorphism,” with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Steve Gadd, is available in U.S. record stores.) He also has composed and arranged hundreds of scores for television, film and advertisements.
Mr. Satoh’s current band, Randooga, is his most ambitious artistic endeavor. He is trying to take jazz, that black American art form, and infuse it with Japanese spirit. He draws parallels to the Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok, who was inspired by his own folk traditions to write classical music of lasting beauty and international appeal.
“I don’t want my inspiration to be world-wide, I want it to be very local,” says Mr. Satoh. “If I go in that direction, I may follow a very narrow path, but I think it will lead me to a very universal kind of music that people from any country can understand.”
At a jazz festival in Yokohama recently, Mr. Satoh and Randooga amazed the young crowd. At one point, two drummers took center stage madly beating bongo drums. In another number, one band member delivered a startling solo by slapping his cheeks; another responded with some artful twangs on a mouth harp. Several songs featured guest female vocalist Shigeri Kizu, whose haunting voice pierced the instrumental melodies with tones that echoed traditional Japanese folk songs.
Percussionist Midori Takada, Randooga’s only regular female member, says Mr. Satoh’s work is not only significant for Japanese jazz artists, but also classical and contemporary musicians. “The music of Japan nowadays has many influences from the West,” she says, “so it is very important to think of our originality.”
Wary of crass mutations, Mr. Satoh says that finding a sound that rings true is his biggest challenge. “It’s not easy,” he says. “If I did it easily, the result would be like a Las Vegas show with Fujiyama geisha, and I don’t want that.”
Kiyoshi Koyama, chief editor of Swing Journal, the nation’s leading jazz magazine, calls the project “unprecedented” and says it promises to raise the awareness of jazz in Japan as an art form, not just as a form of entertainment. “Satoh has been contributing to the artistic or cultural side of jazz in Japan probably more than anyone else,” he says.
On one level, Randooga is the vehicle for Mr. Satoh’s search for his own place in the art he has dedicated his life to, a quest for his own jazz identity, one deeply rooted in Japan. Mr. Satoh’s jazz career rose from the dust and ashes of World War II. Fleeing American bombs in 1944, his family moved to a large house in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward that happened to contain an old upright piano. Two years later, the five-year-old boy took up the instrument with the encouragement of his mother, Setsu.
“She was afraid there would be chaos after the war, so she thought if I was interested in music, I wouldn’t be led in the wrong direction,” Mr. Satoh recalls.
In 1957, his father’s small business suffered one in a series of bankruptcies. Yoshiaki Satoh told his 16-year-old son to start making money.
A few months later, Mr. Satoh was playing in his first band, accompanying singers, magicians and strippers at a cabaret in the Ginza district. By 1959, the high school senior had broken into his first major band — Georgie Kawaguchi and His Big Four+One — playing alongside two of Japan’s most popular jazz stars, alto saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and tenor saxophonist Akira Miyazawa.
It was Mr. Watanabe who later encouraged Mr. Satoh to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, making him the fourth Japanese musician to do so. Seeing his country for the first time from the other side of the world seemed to strengthen Mr. Satoh’s attachment to Japan. The reactions of other students played a part in that.
“They’d often ask me, `What brings you here?'” he remembers. “They expected me to have some extra element because I’m Japanese. After coming back, I started to study Japanese culture much more deeply.”
His two years at Berklee also provided an opportunity to pursue his growing interest in composing and arranging. In between classes on music theory, he immersed himself in books on these subjects.
Mr. Satoh says he now devotes about 70% of his time to arranging and composing music, the remainder to performing and recording. As a pianist, he says he was driven to express himself more fully as an arranger and composer. The piano is not a “show off” instrument, he says. “It has a very limited ability to express whole music. It can’t produce a big sound or hold long notes, but I want to be able to hold long notes or use percussive sounds or electronic sounds or the human voice. Like a painter, I want to use many colors.”
Mr. Satoh puts those colors to practical use as a composer for films, TV dramas and commercials. His work can be heard at least once a month on the Nippon television network’s popular “Tuesday Suspense Theater,” and in TV commercials for Nippon Life Insurance Co. “It only earns my bread and butter,” he says. “It’s nothing creative — there’s no time to be creative. The only good feeling I get from it is like the satisfaction you’d get from being a good shoemaker or a good tailor.”
Mr. Satoh has paid a price for his decision to remain in Japan. He says a friend working in Hollywood makes five times more money for writing a film score than he would in Japan. “If I did the same amount of work in New York or Los Angeles,” says Mr. Satoh, “I could be a rich man.”
Not even the prospect of more money has ever lured Mr. Satoh away from his home shores for long. He admits that for a brief time in the late 1960s, following his return from Berklee, he felt Japanese society was too insular. “But I have been working here for a long time,” he says, “and I’m very involved in the Japanese way of human relations, so it’s very comfortable for me.”
On his travels through Japan, Mr. Satoh says he always finds one more reason to stay — whether it’s a “shamisen” (Japanese traditional guitar) player in the northern prefecture of Aomori, a rural folk singer on the southernmost island of Okinawa, or a Buddhist priest in the ancient capital of Nara chanting his prayers.
“I have some seed,” Mr. Satoh says. “American people call it jazz, but I’ve already planted it in this country’s soil and it’s growing inside of me.”

Mr. Schofield is a free-lance writer based in Tokyo.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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