Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 29, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VIII: The Fairer Sax

I finally drove through Kamisu for the first time since the Great Tohoku Quake. Although the debris has long since been cleaned up and some repairs carried out, it's still easy to tell where the tsunami came through...and where the sandy soil suffered the worst liquefaction. There's one area of The Strip on Route 124 which used to have some of my favorite restaurants. Now it looks like a ghost town that suffered a Lovecraftian horror; buildings, signs, and poles lean at crazy angles, the sidewalks are full of strange bulges, and the whole, 4-lane boulevard is banked. Going through it can send one's sense of balance into a tailspin. They'll probably have to tear everything down and start over.

The reason I went through the avenue of destruction was that I was invited to a jam session. Actually, it was a rehearsal. The Kashima Jazz Friends, originally known as the Kashima Seaside Jazz Friends, is an open-participation jazz ensemble that was founded together with the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival (now simply "Kashima Jazz") in 2003. It was intended to be a jazz counterpart to the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra with the same stated objective, i.e. to help raise the cultural level of Kashima so that it won't only be known as a "sports city". From the start it was an unwieldy but good-natured alliance of pro and amateur musicians. However, though I'd worked with them closely every year to help carry out the Kashima Jazz event, I'd never been a member of the group, and I'd never joined them in a regular performance. I was told that they'd assumed I was too busy. They were probably right, but this year they finally invited me to join them, and I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, my schedule kept me from attending their rehearsals in January and February, and the Great Quake wiped out all activity in the month of March. Then it was announced that they'd be doing a rather hastily organized performance as part of a local charity event for earthquake relief. The evening of April 27th was scheduled as the one and only rehearsal. I was invited, and so I made the time. However, since the usual Kashima Jazz Friends practice venue was still out of commission, we had to use an alternative venue down in Kamisu; hence the journey down through the tsunami ghost town.

I arrived there not knowing quite what to expect. There were some faces I recognized and others I didn't. I was told that at least two of them were professionals if not more. It was also made clear from the start that I was to be treated almost as a sort of guest celebrity, i.e. I was given lots of feature spots. That got the nerves going; I was asked to play tenor sax and flute, neither of which I'd touched in ages. In fact, it had been a very long time since I'd done any kind of jazz performance except as director. I was well aware that I had a reputation that had probably long since become more myth than reality, but now I was faced with the prospect of dashing it.

They didn't waste any time throwing me into it, either. They started right off with the piece that had me on flute with a switch to a sax solo in the middle. Naturally, they insisted on miking the flute, no faking it. I played it as best I could, promising to practice more later. (Actually, the biggest problem was probably playing in tune.) I had no changes written for the sax solo, so I winged it by ear. It was fun, but I still felt rusty as hell. The rehearsal continued for a few more tunes, including a couple that I sang, and then I noticed something. The wind players consisted of a whole bunch of saxes (all but one alto not counting myself) and one trumpet. All of them but one were men my age or older. The one exception, a younger female alto saxophonist, was clearly the leader and by far the most aggressive and competent musician of the lot. She definitely had some solid jazz performance chops, which told me that I needed to get my act together or else. However, she was very civil and totally cool about the whole thing, helping me to follow the group's long-standing arrangements once the initial jitters had faded. There was one tune in which we had back-to-back solos, and that got me thinking...

During a break, the founder of the group, a professional jazz drummer and totally interesting guy, got behind the drum set and invited me to do an improv jam. My heart immediately landed in my stomach; it had been too long since I'd done anything of the sort, and I couldn't conjure up any jazz tune I could play on tenor sax with any real degree of confidence. The alto sax woman immediately jumped in, and she and the (pro) pianist played a tune I'd never heard in my life. Embarrassed, I took the plunge and started in on a tune of my own afterward, specifically "Harlem Nocturne", but I'd only ever played it on alto sax, not tenor, and not long after the piano and drums picked it up, I totally lost it and started foundering all over the place. I improved around it when I could, but after a while the pianist mercifully brought it to an end.

We were debating what to do next when a key member, the guitarist, finally decided to show up. He wanted us to go through some tunes we'd already practiced, which was good for me, anyway. It also got me thinking again...and when we came to the tune where I played a back-to-back solo with the alto sax woman, I decided to go for it and asked if she'd be interested in trading 8's and 4's. She was most definitely game.

"This is going to be fun," she said impishly.
"And I fully expect to get my ass kicked," I replied, "but that's fine."

So, without telling anybody else what we were up to, we traded 8 bar solos followed by 4 bars, stretching it out (while the rhythm section competently followed, and the other wind players looked confused and squinted their eyes at the music sheets), and finally closing it by doing the last 2 bars together. Yes, I got my ass kicked, but she was very cool about it. We did our best to play off each other, and she even playfully mimicked my style(?) toward the end, so it was easy for me to come in onto it to close it.

Sometimes getting your ass kicked is good, because it gives you motivation to try harder. The performance is in a week. Time to practice...


  • Sad to hear about Kamisu. How did the larger structures like the hotels and stores do? I imagine the damage looks progressively worse the farther east you go from Route 124; do you know if the plants are back up and running?

    I expect to hear in future posts about your work with this Jazz group that you've worked out your rusty kinks and you're giving that insanely skilled woman a run for her money.

    Keep up the great work! (And post another tune in your player app!)

    By Blogger Andy Wheeler, at 12:11 AM  

  • Andy
    I haven't seen that much of Kamisu yet, but I've heard that a lot of the residential areas were in bad shape, just as the Hinode area of Itako. The problem is that the whole town essentially sits on a giant sandspit, and it got shaken apart. The big buildings, like Kashima Central Hotel, look okay, but I don't know for sure. The worst damage was right around the port, because there was nothing there to block the tsunami. It was only a few meters high, but it went all the way across Route 124.

    The Sumitomo Steel plant suffered multiple fires, and Kashima Oil Company took a lot of damage, but both are up and running again.

    Interestingly, the Doai area of (former) Hasaki came through okay for the most part.

    I hope to have fun with Kashima Jazz Friends, if my schedule permits. Participating in the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra (currently shut down because of quake-related problems) has been hard enough. At any rate, I need to get my chops up to par so I can at least live up to my reputation.

    I have a couple of new tunes in the works and hope to have something posted soon.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:52 AM  

  • I've heard you perform and I think you are much harder on yourself than your audience is. I'm sure you'll make a great contribution to the concert. Place and time? Tickets? Can't promise to make it, but will try.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:43 PM  

  • you are your hardest critic.
    i am sure you'll wing it well. hey, your compositions rock!

    By Blogger tuti, at 3:29 AM  

  • Thanks, everyone!

    The gig was today. There were two performance sets that were mostly the same. During the first stage I was a little nervous but totally pumped, and I was in pretty good shape. I and the 1st alto player played off each other, and we made a good team. During the second stage I maybe relaxed a bit too much (always a danger in duplicate sets) and lost a bit of the groove while the 1st alto player was even more into it (i.e. I got my ass kicked), but we still made a good team.

    Amazingly, after the second set, the audience reaction was so good that the band played its first-ever encore in its eight year history. Not only was it unexpected and totally unrehearsed, but the band leaders were totally unprepared for it. Not sure what to do, they decided to do the vocal feature piece they'd already done with just the chorus and rhythm section, but this time adding an improvised wind part and stretching it out for solos. Participation was open to any member brave enough to try. It wound up being the (mostly pro) rhythm section and chorus plus myself and the 1st alto player. It was f*****g awesome. We had a blast. That's what jazz is supposed to be all about.

    What really amazes me about the 1st alto player is not only that she's NOT a pro, but also that it turns out she has only been playing jazz saxophone for around 4 years. Apparently she has been taking jazz sax lessons from a pro in Mito. I'm certainly impressed. I also realize how much I need to practice so we can continue to be a good team.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:00 AM  

  • Sorry, Panda-B...I read your comment too late. The gig was in the "Zico Square" in the Cheerio shopping mall.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:01 AM  

  • We were in Tokyo anyway. Looking forward to next time.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:31 PM  

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