Discovering Japan’s Jazz Fusion

Music has always been very important to me. You can learn so much about people and a culture by their music. When I was in Kyoto, I simply searched “record store” on my smartphone and started walking to the nearest one without a second thought. My phone showed it was in the middle of a building somewhere. I walked around the perimeter of the building and ended up at the back door of the shop with a sign that read, “Do not enter.” I had to backtrack and go through more hallways and ride an elevator, but I eventually ended up at Joe’s Garage.

The walls were packed tightly with CDs and vinyl of music I had never heard of or seen before. There was an older Japanese man with flowing rocker hair filing albums in the back, and a few people sorting through the shelves. Whenever I pick out vinyl for my turntable, I usually just look for album artwork that intrigues me and go with it as a way of finding new music. Nine times out of ten, it’s something good, even if it’s completely random.

This is the bag I got at Joe‘s Garage. I‘m still a little confused on the banana.

Japan is known for a form of jazz called jazz fusion. I don’t particularly know what the jazz is being fused with, but I am all for finding out. I looked on my own for a few minutes and came out with a green album covered with harmonicas and Japanese writing, and a beautifully illustrated album called Morning Dance. I was able to find a Louis Armstrong album and bought that one for Louis, no questions asked. These were some good finds already, but I came here to find the true essence of Japanese music, and I had no idea what that was or if I had picked it up yet.

Joe Tanaka poses with my music selections in his shop. He was a great guy with amazing hair.

I clearly knew that I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I decided to call in the big guns. I started asking the worker some questions about the store, and he tried his best to answer. During the exchange I remembered we were at Joe’s Garage. “Are you Joe?” I ask, and he just looked up and simply says, “Yes.” Alright, so I have the big man himself, the shop’s namesake, and that was pretty awesome.

I asked Joe if what I had gotten was any good, and if he had suggestions. In broken English, he said the green album was a great easy listening record and the fairy album was poppy. I then asked him to direct me to the best album in the whole store. He rubbed his chin for a minute, and walked off to a separate rack and started pulling out albums. I stood in anticipation to see his selections for me out of the hundreds of albums he had in stock.

Joe turned around and said, “Jazz Fusion!” He put a yellow album into my hands. “Best Japanese saxophone player,” he said. “Greatest hits.” I was super excited to take the album from him, and even more so to play it. This link will play Down East from his greatest hits.

Now that I’m back in Texas with my turntable, I’ve been able to check out Sadao Watanabe’s work. What Joe told me was true: this guy absolutely rips on a saxophone. The album is funky, but doesn’t stray too far from jazz. It always has a beat you can move your feet to. I am a big fan of the saxophone, and I can say this album hits all the marks and is indeed some of the best brass I’ve ever heard. There is no exclusion of guitars and bass riffs along with other brass instruments and a plethora of sounds that are blended together to make something extraordinary. If I were to guess, I would say the “fusion” part of jazz fusion belongs to disco, funk, and something all of its own.

Getting a chance to meet an enthusiast of music who runs his own shop in Kyoto since 1986 was a privilege and an experience. I could tell Joe really loved the music in his store and enjoyed sharing it with other people.

One thought on “Discovering Japan’s Jazz Fusion”

  1. I’m becoming educated by my grandson on jazz fusion.
    I’m amazed that turntables are still in use —since all I ever see are
    CDs. So proud of his writing —

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