JAZU: Jazz from Japan. Interview. Hitomi Nishiyama
Scritto da Nico Conversano
Martedì 09 Febbraio 2016 00:00
Foto: Akiko Honda
Interview to Hitomi Nishiyama
Review to New Heritage of Real Heavy Metal
Hitomi Nishiyama is a pianist with a strong melodic sensibility and provided with a strict compositional logic. Through the years he has been using her qualities to create a very personal style becoming one of the most refined and prolific pianist of the modern Japanese jazz scene. The release of her newest album reflects once again her eclectic approach to music: the record, entitled "New Heritage of Real Heavy Metal", is an unusual jazz revisitation of some classics of heavy metal.
Jazz Convention: Thinking back to your childhood which are your first memories about music?
Hitomi Nishiyama: My mother was a teacher at elementary school. When I was 6 years old, she bought an electronic piano in order to practice for her job. I asked her to take piano lessons but she didn't listen to it. So I started playing by myself trying to transcribe songs for demonstration on that electric piano. It was so fun. My father also likes jazz music, he listened a lot of jazz in our house.
JC: After an apprenticeship as classical pianist, what did turn on your interest for jazz? Are there any particular jazz albums that made it happen?
HN: I've been studying classical piano since I was 6 years old, but when I was 17 years old I quit studying piano because I couldn't no more enjoy playing it. Playing piano became painful to me. At that time there were big differences between "what I wanted to play" an "what I had to play". During the time I had not been touching my piano at all, I found two albums at a CD shop by chance. These two albums were "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" by Chick Corea and "Undercurrent" by Bill Evans. In my childhood, my father listened especially a lot of jazz from the 60's which included horn sections. So until that moment I never had listened to piano jazz. These albums had complicated harmonies and tension. They really shocked me. I got interested in piano jazz. After a while I decided entering at Osaka College of Music where I majored in jazz piano.
JC: After your debut album "I'm Missing You" released in 2004, in 2006 you teamed up with bass player Hans Backenroth and drummer Anders Kjellberg, some of Sweden's most talented musicians, with whom you recorded two studio albums "Cubium" (2006) and "Many Seasons" (2007) and a live recording entitled "In Stockholm" (2008). Where did it come from the choice to join these Swedish musicians?
HN: There is a Japanese record label named "Spice of Life". That label introduced in Japan a lot of Swedish jazz musicians like Lars Jansson, Ulf Wakenius, The Real Group, and more. In 2015 I was awarded at Yokohama Jazz Promenade Competition, which is known as a gateway for young jazz players in Japan. After the competition, I received a mail from "Spice of Life" label's owner who was interested in producing a CD. I was so interested in European jazz, so I decided to record for this label. The director booked two musicians for this recording: Hans Backenroth on bass, from Sweet Jazz Trio, and Anders Kjellberg on drum, from Lars Jansson Trio. They worked together many times with this label. I was so happy to meet and play with them. They're great and very kind musicians. I completed the recording of my first CD with these members without any stress.
JC: Which is your relation with European jazz in terms of inspiration and influences? What's your opinion about the "under the skin" relation between European jazz and Japanese jazz?
HN: There are different sorts of European jazz depending on the country it comes from. In my opinion European jazz is not limited to just imitate American jazz and I think that it's associated with their own culture. They're working on new forms of jazz which blends with their classical music or local and traditional music. After listening to European jazz I found in it ethnicity. I feel it very attractive.
I think most of Japanese jazz musicians try to do their best to just play American jazz. Even if I could perfectly imitate the American jazz, what I'm seeking is a language and an expression of my own. I think European musicians already have that in a natural way. I think many Japanese jazz fans appreciate the Italian jazz. That's because I think Italian emotional melody is similar to enka which is the Japanese traditional popular song. There is the same kind of nostalgic feeling that we can share.
JC: After this Sweden experience, you recorded with two different Japanese trios: the one with Yasuhiko "Hachi" Sato on bass and Kazumi Ikenada on drums, with whom you recorded "Music in You" (2011) and "Simpathy" (2013), and a second trio, plus guitar, named "Parallax", with Takuya Sakazaki on bass, Takehiro Shimizu on drums and Takayoshi Baba on guitar, with whom you recorded "Parallax" (2008) and "Shift" (2014). What's the main differences between this two ensembles in terms of music writing and playing approach?
HN: My trio named "Parallax" was teamed up in 2007 with musicians of my same generation, so we share the same view of music. We always thought Parallax trio was like a pop band. The format of the tunes is not properly jazz. When I play with the other trio composed by Hachi and Kazumi, I like to play seriously jazz music. They are experienced musicians that I respect a lot. They told me important things about jazz and how to play as an ensemble in live gigs.
JC: The album "Crossing", released in 2013, focused on one of your favorite performing set: piano solo. What was your mind approach in recording this album?
HN: "Crossing" was the 10th album of my career, so I wanted to try to record a piano solo. I knew about a good concert hall for this recording: Sengawa Avenue Hall in Tokyo. I liked this venue and its piano. It was a Fazioli tuned up by a special piano technician. Usually I record my original songs and jazz standards, but this time I wanted to record my favourite songs like Japanese traditional song, Italian song and more. Since my childhood I've been always had a longing for beautiful melodies. Recording that album was like returning to the basics. My musical roots is all inside a beautiful piano melody.
JC: The choice of playing one of Italian songwriter Bruno Lauzi's song named "Il tuo Amore", in this piano solo recording, remarks a certain interest for Italian music. Can you tell us about the choice of this song and how did you discover it the first time?
HN: I first listened to this Italian song on the album "Italian Ballads vol. 1" by Lee Konitz and Stefano Battaglia. I really loved this album and since then I started to play Italian songs like "Ma l'Amore No", "Il tuo Amore" and "Parlami d'Amore, Mariù" We Japanese people often sing some Italian songs like "O' Sole Mio" or "Torna a Surriento" in music classes of junior high school. I loved them.
JC: According to your biography Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi is one of your long time musical reference point. What do you prefer of his playing style?
HN: The first Pieranunzi's album I bought was "Deep Down" in 2000 and I was really shocked by his music. Then I decided to collect his other albums and transcribe his playing and compositions. His music has a strict piano touch and rhythm, but the melodies he plays are always cantabile. I like that good balance. I always excited by it. Its first Japan tour was in 2004. I was so excited and went to all of his concerts! It was a miraculous and fantastic time. In 2005, I applied for "Yokohama Jazz Promenade Competition", the biggest jazz competition in Japan. Because the final round of this competition is held at Akarenga Hall, the same hall where Pieranunzi performed in 2004, I was so excited to play the same piano on the same stage. As a result, I won the grand prix. He came to Japan for the second time in 2013. I went to hall of his concerts again. I managed to hand my CD to him and talked about myself. After the final concert, I was called by him. I was so surprised. He talked about that he want to publish his book in Japan. I want to help him and I hope Japanese jazz fans will read his book.
JC: In your performances you often choose the "Made in Italy" piano Fazioli? What suits you the most in this piano's sound and its features?
HN: I first knew about Fazioli piano when I listened to Enrico Pieranunzi's album named "Canto Nascosto". He used many pianos on this album, among which Steinway, Kawai, Borgato and Fazioli. I thought the Fazioli's sound was the best of them all, so I get interested in that piano. The first time I played a Fazioli piano, I was surprised: graceful sound, nice controllability, beautiful appearance, I finally had understood the word "cantabile". It was also used to record my album "Parallax" in 2008. In the same year the company of Fazioli importer for Japan was established, then Fazioli gradually come to be introduced in Japan. I used a Fazioli piano on my recordings "Shift (2014)", "Crossing (2013)", "Sympathy (2013)" and "Astrolabe (2012)", but each time I played a different Fazioli piano. All of them were so rich of sound and wonderful instruments. I want to use a Fazioli piano as much as possible. In Japan we also have a great sound engineer called Mr. Ochi. He is incredible. Also Mr. Paolo Fazioli himself says he is one of the greatest engineer he has ever met. I definitely agree.
JC: Your music, often so strongly intinged in beautiful melodies, seems to go counter-current with the frantic and pulsating life of Tokyo, the city where you live. Do you use your music as a refuge to the frenzy activity of this megalopolis?
HN: I think there's just a little relationship between my music and Tokyo 'cause I moved to Tokyo only seven years ago. I grew up in Osaka and I think I've been greatly affected by my city. I think it's not important where I live now. Both the environments in which I grew up and the music I listened to have been important for me. There are too many people and cultures in Tokyo gathered from all over Japan and I cannot choice from them. Osaka where I grew up is known as the city of merchants. Communication, kindness of heart, that we call ninjou, and joke are the most important things to live in Osaka. It's a strange, funny city. People in Osaka likes emotional dramatic story. Maybe my way of writing music was very influenced by it. So I always think about doing something with fun, with ninjou, it's my motivation. I recommend you to go to Osaka, if you come in Japan. You can meet funny people.
JC: In "Travels" (2013) you collaborated with singer Kaoru Kazuma. Composing music for a vocalist who wrote lyrics for it, influenced in some way your music writing?
HN: Kaoru has a really clear voice and a wide vocal range. I wrote some songs to fit her. Lyrics are all been put in after I wrote my compositions. Personally, I love this album. It was a good opportunity for me to re-discover how to create melodies.
JC: In "Astrolabe" (2012),"Parallax" and "Shift" you recruited guitarist Takayoshi Baba to add his particular sound to your music. Which are the "ups and downs" in playing with another harmonic instrument as guitar and which is the sound you are looking for in this combination of instruments?
HN: I love guitar sounds. I have been listening to a lot of guitar music, like rock music or heavy metal. I like guitar heroes such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Vai, Kiko Loureiro and more, so I wanted to play with guitarists. Takayoshi Baba is a very good jazz guitarist and he also has the feeling of longing to guitar heroes. It's so funny to play with him.
JC: Your collaboration with excellent bass player Daiki Yasugawa gave birth to two of the finest recordings in your discography, "El Cant dels Ocells" (2012) and "Down by the Salley Garden" (2014). How did this duo start and in which way Yasugawa's musicianship completes yours?
HN: I met him 7 years ago. Then we began to play in trio together with a drummer. Daiki Yasukagawa is one of the finest bassist I know and hÈs also a good bowing player. At a certain point we thought that playing as a duo was better than as a trio. In the recording it's possible to listen each deep details of tones and the breath of instruments. I've always thought I'd like to play in a simple way and I hope that I managed to deliver to listeners the beautiful sound of Daiki Yasukagawa.
JC: Among the originals of your release "Shift", there are beautiful arrangements of "The Girl of Ipanema" and "C Jam Blues" that remind your interest for standards. About you, after such a long time what can these old songs still offer to nowadays' jazz musicians in terms of inspiration?
HN: I like to continue working on jazz standards. When I was studying at the college, I had the opportunity of taking some lessons from the great saxophone player Phil Woods. I never forgot what he said: «You must study the history and tradition, but you must also write new original songs. Both are important.»
JC: Let's talk about your latest album "New Heritage of Real Heavy Metal".
HN: My new album is a cover album of heavy metal and hard rock songs. I recorded some songs of my favourite bands: Megadeth, ANGRA, Rainbow, Pantera and more. I listened to heavy metal music in my high school days. Selecting and arranging these songs was really enjoying for me and I've had a great time doing it.
JC: What was the most difficult part of arranging these often virile and fast heavy metal/hard rock tunes, so different from a usual jazz composition?
HN: The most difficult thing was spending a lot of time listening and selecting tunes for this album. Because hard rock and heavy metal's melodies are so simple and performed by repeated guitar riffs, it's not suitable for jazz and acoustic piano. But I chose some tunes which have beautiful melodies. Changing heavy metal tunes to 4 beat swing would have been easy, but I didn't want to arrange songs without respecting both meavy metal and jazz, so I tried to arrange them leaving their original spirit.
JC: What's the reaction you're aiming to prompt in ordinary jazz listeners who never listened to heavy metal?
HN: Many older jazz fans had some difficulties appreciating it, but young generations accepted our music naturally. It's part of contemporary jazz, I think. I got a lot of good reactions also by metal fans. People who don't know heavy metal think this music is savage, noisy and has a negative image about it. But I know and respect the musicians of heavy metal, they're are all excellent musicians with good technique. Heavy metal fans realized and accepted that I'm thinking about heavy metal tunes in a careful and serious way.
JC: How come you chose some photos of sexy and gorgeous idol and actress Luchino Fujisaki as cover image?
HN: It was just an executive producer's aim and taste. So far, I've already released many albums, so I thought I wanted to try something different and peculiar with CD jackets. I like it, it's very stylish.
JC: What's your opinion about today's Japanese jazz scene?
HN: Currently it is not a good moment for music economy. Jazz magazines are decreasing and also the major record companies have weakened. But this can also turn into a new possibility. Young musicians are making the job by their own. Through internet they are able to transmit informations about their activity and music and it is also become easier to make a CD. In a sense, I think it's good to move and think freely. Young musicians are playing a kind of jazz of their own. Sometimes it's said by older jazz fans and musicians: «This is not real jazz!», but I think young musicians should do straight what's in their minds and keep playing what they think it's good music.