It's all about the bass

Crisscross Strumming with Kengo Nakamura

Kengo Nakamura © Michael Black
Kengo Nakamura © Michael Black

“Music is a word-­‐less connection from person to person, and gives encouragement, hope and peace.” - Kengo Nakamura

It all began in one autumn when I first encountered the magical Kengo Nakamura and his “bass‐full” of passion during the Tokyo Manila Jazz Festival in Tokyo last year. Passion may be defined as a manifestation of strong feelings, but it is essentially a virtue. While all humans may possess passion, a collective few may deliver it inherently without effort. And, the power to be able to inject the same emotion simple-­heartedly without necessary logic into another soul is a gift. Kengo belongs to that collective few. It is always an inspiring delight to watch Kengo strum his antique contrabass. The calligraphy of his visage and murmurs makes you almost dive irresistibly into the secret space between his fingers and his bass strings.

One of Japan’s most accomplished bass players, Kengo Nakamura has, indeed, traversed long, colorful years of admirable success, from a curious classic guitarist at 12 in Osaka who simply wanted to sing folk songs to the sought-­after bass player in New York, who eventually strummed next to Wynton Marsalis. So much inspiration had supported his wings while living in the U.S. that they have been cradling Kengo between Tokyo and New York for the past twenty years. This delicious infusion of West and East Japan’s moderation and New York’s energy makes Kengo one of Japan’s most exciting jazz musicians.

Kengo Nakamura: When I started to take private lessons in classical guitar at 12 years old near my home in Osaka, I really wanted to sing folk songs, but my teacher didn’t teach me any folk music, so I switched to the folk guitar and started playing while singing Japanese folk songs. When I reached high school, my friends and I would exchange cassette tapes of black American music artists, like Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye… Louis Johnson, the bass player of the popular song ”Ai no Corrida” was a huge influence to me. Then, my friends thought of putting up a band and got me to play electric bass even if I didn’t know how to play it. I just listened to all the music of Quincy Jones and other black American musicians and that’s really how I started to be so addicted to jazz.

Moving from his unhurried life in Osaka to busy Tokyo, Kengo decided it was time to shape his music career seriously beyond borders. Three persevering years studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston soon pivoted Kengo’s music life to an unimaginable turning point.

Kengo: After studying Japanese History in the university in Kyoto, many of my musical friends started to head to Tokyo. I realized I had to do the same and broaden my horizons. While in Osaka, I concentrated heavily on practicing the bass, slap technique and learning black music to prepare myself for Tokyo and my dream to meet all the black musicians in the U.S. I studied English very hard as well. During the mid 80s, there were about 300 Japanese students who would go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Great musicians like Makoto Ozone, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Sadao Watanabe were all Berklee graduates. I learned acoustic bass from my Berklee teacher, Whit Browne. My years in Berklee were tough—I practiced every single day knowing that my classmates like Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart could already play well before they entered Berkeley. While I practiced in the practice room, someone would often knock on the door and ask me to join a session because they needed a bass player. I had not mastered playing the bass yet but I would always join the sessions for my experience. Finally, one time someone asked me to join a jam session at a gig in Wally’s Café, a popular jazz club in Boston. There, I became a regular bass player, playing twice a week from 9pm-2am. The musician fee was really cheap at that time (laughs), but I owed everything to experience. I think it was a perfect life then. I would attend classes during the day, and play music at nights or weekends.

Unlike many Japanese students at Berklee College of Music who followed the common path to return to Japan after their studies, Kengo took a different turn and decided to move to New York. And, for the past twenty years, New York has been second home.

Kengo: I just felt I needed to learn more and do more in the U.S. I wanted to meet all the great jazz artists I had been listening to when I was young. I moved to New York around 1991 without any connections. Simply by checking information on Village Voice magazine, or asking people around, I would go to music clubs and look for jam sessions. One day, Alvester Garnett, a great drummer, called me to play bass at the famous Iridium club in Broadway. The bandleader liked me, and soon, I became a regular house player in that club. At that time, Iridium was a new hangout for yuppies, and was just across the Lincoln Center, so players from the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra would often come to Iridium to hang out. That’s how I met the incredible pianist Cyrus Chestnut. He got me to join his regular band, and before I knew it, I was going on tour with his band for three years all over the U.S., Japan, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, etc. Working with Cyrus was like working with an idol! I learned so much from him. Being with the band was like being part of a great family.

Strumming with Cyrus Chestnut’s band was Kengo’s big break into New York jazz. That definitely didn’t stop him—in no time, another huge artist picked up Kengo’s impeccable gift, and from there, Kengo had successfully made a name of his own.

Kengo: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is a great ensemble of about fifteen of the finest soloists, and headed by Wynton Marsalis. I was still playing at Iridium when Wynton came by the club. He saw me play and invited me to join his septet. I also played at his live recording session of “Live at the House of Tribes,” the album released around 2005 by Blue Note and it was nominated at the Grammy Awards.

Can Kengo be called a Japanese New Yorker? What drives him to New York and how has this dual life molded not only his musical career, but his personal life as well?

Kengo: Having been blessed with so many great opportunities to work with incredible musicians in New York, I could not help but decide to stay there. It looks tough moving back and forth to and from New York and Tokyo, but New York life is very exciting for me. For a musician, New York is the place to be. There are just more gigs there than in Japan, more energy, action, and a wider network to stay connected with music’s best. I honestly would not know what I would have been if I had not stayed in New York and decided to return to Japan completely. I have no idea (laughs)! Maybe I would end up teaching (smiles). I think playing abroad is a necessary experience for musicians, especially in Japan. Feeling the music out there is very important. I love black music a lot, so I think I had no choice but to keep my New York home. Playing with Wynton Marsalis, for example, was one of my best moments in the U.S. But, five years ago, I decided that I also had to spend more time in Japan. I also needed to connect with my “fellow” musicians; thus, I had been jet setting back and forth in the last years.

Playing with an almost American-­‐flavored sound keeps Kengo just on the right track of balance, although distinguishing between the Japanese and American “style” has never been an issue for him.

Kengo: I admit that Rhythm is the best aspect about jamming with American musicians. The effect on the drums is especially very different with regards to dynamics and speed. There is definitely a New York magic. It doesn’t matter if the musician is American or Japanese or any other nationality. Sometimes when I meet a musician, I surprise myself at how “New Yorkish” the sound impresses me.

With seven albums lined up, Kengo first tried his hand at composing music after receiving a healthy advise from famous pianist Makoto Ozone, whom also lived in New York.

Kengo: I consider Makoto as one of my greatest mentors. I played with his big band for about ten years. I learned a lot from him while we were in New York together. I invited him to do a duo gig together in Broadway. At that time, Makoto told me, “Kengo, you need to write a song.” And, that’s how I started composing. He liked my compositions and advised me that I should start producing CDs. I wrote a song I dedicated to that collaboration, called “OP-­OZ” (Oscar Peterson/Ozone). My first album, “Divine,” which consisted largely of my compositions, featured Cyrus Chestnut, Neal Smith, Rodney Green, Makoto Ozone and more. I also featured many foreign artists in my next albums: Adam Rogers, Alex Spiagin, Aaron Parks, Wess Anderson, Marcus Printup, Clarence Penn, Ted Nash, and many more.

And, where does Kengo go from here?

Kengo: Music today is just so different from twenty years ago. Everybody is talking about how young musicians today are dependent on digital technology, and although I think a lot of them are well crafted in technique, so few of them are actually going out there to live concerts. But, to understand music well, you need to go out there and listen to live music. A musician plays in front of people, and for the people, and we need to grasp this feeling live. I consider myself basically a swing lover. But today’s music is more complex now. The tree of jazz has so many branches that it is difficult to explain what type of jazz people are playing. I prefer straight-­‐ahead delivery and I believe I will carry on this way in my future performances. Just as one of

Kengo’s songs in his latest album, “Songs in My Lifetime” connotes, “Criss Cross” (by Thelonious Monk) is the eternal path that Kengo Nakamura has chosen—oscillating his passionate rhythm between New York and Tokyo, and across the globe. The breadth of music life has never been more exciting, and even if he is not humming the folk songs he always wanted to sing when he was 12, their poetry shall always linger in his delicate compositions.