JAZU: Jazz from Japan. Interview. akiko

Foto: Kyosuke Irifune

Interview with akiko

Review to Dark Eyes

A curious and multifaceted musical personality joined with a refined and expressive voice make akiko one of Japan’s top vocalist. Along the years the singer have been embodied the most modern conception of jazz singer through heterogeneous albums, but always faithful to the spirit of this genre. In her latest release, entitled Dark Eyes, akiko goes as far as to roots of jazz offering to listeners a personal and appealing reinterpretation of New Orleans style.

Jazz Convention: When did your first approach with singing happen and which are your memories about it?

akiko: At the age of 19, I was working in a bar, and a guitarist was playing there, nightly. When he played the song Autumn Leaves I said to him, “Hey, I know that song!” to which he replied, “Oh yes? Then, sing with me!” And that was it. Until then, I wasn’t much of a singer, so there isn’t much I can remember.

JC: How did you discovered jazz?

a: When I was a teenager, I used to go to rock’n’roll and jive DJ events, and there were DJs playing vinyls in which rock’ n ‘roll singers sang jazz standards in a style which I didn’t recognize as jazz. After I met the above guitar player, he introduced me to real jazz albums and I started listening to it.

JC: When did you realize that music and singing could become an important part of your life?

a: There is not a specific time in which I realized that. I was paid for my singing during my University period, and my singing career is a continuation of my University singing, so somehow I got into making it a living. I made it into the music career and then, whatever will be, will be…

JC: Girl talk, your 2001 debut album, is the first release for a Japanese female singer to be signed by an important label as Verve. How did you get such an important accomplishment as a starting point?

a: From the agency I was a member of, my demo tape was passed to Universal Music, and Universal Music passed it on to Verve’s international meeting.

JC: 2003’s akiko’s Holiday, recorded in New York, is your personal tribute to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. How much, listening to Holiday has influenced your singing and, in your opinion, how did she change traditional jazz singing?

a: I respect Billie Holiday as a distinguished singer for her originality. I have never tried to sing like her, instead I’ve always wanted to find my own style like she did.

JC: Despite Japanese and Brazilian cultures are so different, Brazilian jazz-influenced styles like bossa nova are always been really popular in Japan. Indeed, in 2007 you recorded Vida in Rio de Janeiro, a collection of Brazilian standards also featuring a duet with the eclectic Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay. What can you tell us about your musical experience in Brazil and what’s your opinion about the connections between Japanese and Brazilian musical style that contributed to make it so popular in Japan?

a: My musical experience in Brazil was fruitful and difficult. Fruitful, because the recording with the Brazilian musicians was a fresh experience and the result came out beautifully. Difficult, because the recording style was different from my previous experiences. In terms of hardware, the monitoring equipment provided was different from Japan, and I found it difficult to adjust. Other than that, the Brazilian musicians were grooving strongly and the experience was refreshing. As for the second question, it is my impression that Brazilian music had only become massively popular in Japan in the past ten or so years, after popular Cafes around Tokyo started to play Brazilian music as relaxing and stylish café time music. Also, I feel that Japanese people love the feeling of “Saudade” that is prevalent in Brazilian music.

JC: “What’s jazz – STYLE-” and “What’s jazz- SPIRIT-“, both released in 2008, musically revealed the two sides of your modern vision of jazz. “STYLE” shows the most traditional aspects of jazz and “SPIRIT”, its possible, future evolution. Your original composition “What’s jazz”, contained in “STYLE”, is your personal reflection in music about the dilemma between old and modern that every jazz musician face everyday. Anyway, along the years you managed to put together the lovers of classic jazz with the newest generations of jazz listeners creating a personal blending of old and new influences and styles. Today, what’s your opinion on current jazz and its future evolution? Is your opinion changed from 2008?

a: There are plenty of musicians out there like Robert Glasper and Jazzanova, just to name a few, who experiment and import new grooves and sounds into the style of jazz. That said, the revolutionary evolution done by Miles Davis would be very difficult in 2013, because the fundamental evolution in jazz style was already done in his era. Today I think it is the spirit that matters the most. If the spirit is that of jazz, then old style or new style really doesn’t matter. That was and still is my opinion.

JC: Since your debut album, Girl talk, produced by famous French producer Henry Renaud, you kept collaborating with many important producers such as Japanese Tatsuo Sunaga, Yukihiro Fukutomi and Hajime Yoshizawa; Italian Nicola Conte, Norwegian Bugge Wesseltoft and many more, revealing how the presence of a good producer beside you helped you to forge your personal style along the years. Are there any producers you would like to work with, that you still haven’t collaborated so far?

a: To name a few: Moritz von Oswald, Matthew Herbert, Mono Fontana.

JC: Words (2010) has been recorded with famous Norwegian musician and producer Bugge Wesseltoft, one of the originator of new jazz-related sounds coming from Scandinavia. On this record, Wesseltoft accompanied you just on piano and keyboards in some of your originals and standards. What fascinates you the most in Scandinavian introspective, minimalistic and peaceful sound aesthetic and how much did this sound approach affected your music?

a: To start with, Japanese culture itself is introspective, minimalistic and peaceful and that is probably why I wanted to record with Bugge. I think there wasn’t much in terms of his music affecting my music and we shared the same music naturally.

JC: 2012 was the 50th anniversary since the first Beatles album was released in 1962. You celebrated the legendary Liverpool iconic pop band by releasing Across the Universe, a collection of Beatles’ covers performed through your personal style. About you, what’s the universal message kept in Beatles music and what’s your favorite Beatles song?

a: The universal message I feel in Beatles’ music is what John Lennon wrote in his lyrics, especially in his late years, and also their love for music. My favourite Beatles songs are Lady Madonna, Come Together, Get Back, Penny Lane, Hey Jude, All You Need is Love and many more.

JC: Your interest for fashion is also an important aspect of Akiko style. Which are your current activities in fashion world?
a: I will collaborate with my friend’s brand, N_DRESS. I love the classical style of clothes, so we will make a vintage-like textile design and print.

JC: Your latest album Dark Eyes is another step ahead in your personal journey through jazz history. This time you recorded the album in New Orleans, the original birthplace of jazz. How come the idea to record the album in New Orleans? What did you feel being in the city where jazz was born and playing with native musicians from there?

a: It all started just as an idea. I thought it would have been fun. New Orleans is definitely a town of music. The players and the audience all love music. The recording musicians weren’t as sophisticated as in New York or Los Angeles, but they all had passion and love for music and the resulting sound was powerful and warm. There’s a little bit of “rustic” feel, and that is something I rather like. That is also my impression of New Orleans music.

JC: It’s Just the Blues is an original bluesy composition, written from you, featured in Dark Eyes. Blues is a musical feeling that once was thought to be just a prerogative of black American people, but today is world wide spreaded and present in several shapes. What’s Blues to you? Are there things that give you the Blues? Do you think a particular kind of “Japanese Blues” does exist?

a: Blues, Soul, Jazz, Rock – they are all the same for me. Life is Blues. Yes, a particular Japanese kind of blues does exist and it’s called enka. There are a lot of ancient music called min’ you (folk song) in Japan, and my impression is that enka originated from min’you. Although enka is not too popular in Japan these days, nonetheless all Japanese can relate to enka in our hearts. If you hear it, you will probably hear the Japanese Blues within it.

JC: From the New Orleans sessions come also your previous cd, Swingy, Swingy, featuring you singing with the vocal duo Chai Chii Sisters, also performing in Dark Eyes. What can you tell us about the collaboration with this duo performing an old-fashioned doo-wop style.

a: I used to listen to this kind of style when I was a teenager. This is what I am interested in currently.

JC: On Swingy, Swingy and Dark Eyes you also performed tunes like East of the Sun, I like to riff and Love me or leave me singing in Japanese. Why did you feel the need to sing these old standards, in your native language?

a: For a while, I didn’t like to sing in Japanese. However, these days I felt the need to express in my own language, especially after the 11 march’s earthquake hit my country.

JC: After exploring jazz, bossa, jive, pop, groove and many other styles, what’s in your next musical projects?

a: Don’t forget classical music. I have always loved it, and these days I especially like to listen to it and ambient music. That isn’t to say that my next musical project will be classical, so please sit tight and wait for the next project.