Artists From Japan #3: An Introduction To Ryo Fukui

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ryo fukui

Who is Ryo Fukui?

Ryo Fukui (福居良), who unfortunately passed away from a lymphoma in March of 2016, was a self-taught jazz pianist based in Sapporo, Japan (Yes, the place the beer is named after). He, like much of Japan, became fascinated with jazz following the end of World War 2, and its associated cultural embargo. While the rest of the world was busy forgetting that jazz could be popular music, Japan just couldn’t get enough of the stuff. And while America’s flirtation with jazz was mostly contained within their love of the more danceable swing music, Japan was getting the jazz of the time. Ryo was absorbing music from people like Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Artists who were exploring not just the musical limits of jazz music, with hard-bop, modal, and free jazz, but the limits of feeling that jazz could evoke. Like the legendary 1-2 hit from Miles Davis with Kind of Blue (1959) into Sketches of Spain (1960), which explored such different emotional tones it’s hard to think they came from the same man in such a small span of time.

But Ryo didn’t get to release music in this period. He wouldn’t manage to release his love letters to those sounds until much later, in the mid 1970’s. A time well after most of his favorite artists had moved onto fusion jazz, or sunk into irrelevancy. Jazz was dying in America, as artists either got too weird for their aging audiences, or began to run their wheels creatively. Many music fans began gravitating towards the more creative, and emerging sounds of genres like funk and progressive rock. But Ryo, by virtue of living in Japan, was free of artistic pressures and ceilings. Secluded from the jazz world at large, he could make some of the purest, most authentically passionate jazz albums of the decade, and would unfortunately be mostly unrecognized for it in the west, until a online resurgence brought his music back into the limelight in the late 2000s.

1. Scenery (1976)

(Satoshi Denpo (Bass), Yoshinori Fukui (Drums), Ryo Fukui (Piano))

Released when Ryo was 27 years old, Scenery is to jazz music as Is This It? is to rock music. A love letter of the purest form. The Strokes took forty years of rock music and chewed it up in a way that only a true blood fan of the music could, and so it is with Scenery. Playing a mixture of a mixture of original compositions and renditions of classics jazz standards, Ryo immediately proves what seperated him from jazz musicians of the time. Many jazz musicians in the 70s would have scoffed at the idea of performing the simple standards. And worse yet, many would have played them in the most rigid, classical way possible. On the other hand, Ryo and his trio perform them with such passion and energy the standards transform into something wholly unique. Equally fundamental, was that the trio exuded such a genuine lack of cynicism, and intellectual posturing, something the overly self-serious jazz world so desperately needed in 1976.

Their performance of “I Want To Talk About You”, takes the melancholic late-night dreaming of the original, and turns into an almost playful recollection of things left behind. With scatting piano lines, and blissful bass underpinnings. And much like a solid majority of the tracks here, the drum and bass are restrained, allowing Ryo’s piano to really shine. His playing is lyrical, and emotive, much like a Village Vanguard-era Bill Evans, but with less focus on subtle complexity. There’s a tangible immediacy to it that’s very unique for lyrical jazz pianists. The notes are hit hard and with purpose, almost evoking tinges of Nina Simone. But even with this forcefulness, there’s nothing harsh to his tone. These are by no means hard, or dissonant numbers, they are overwhelmingly peaceful, and almost eerily beautiful. And when he hits those hard solos, it doesn’t grate the ear, instead it lends these songs an off-kilter swing.

Take for example, the solo on “Early Summer”. Right after the drums and bass come in, the piano has this stuttering riff that seems to build and build before just exploding into this wild midsection. Every single member of the trio attempts to outplay each other at the highest speed their fragile human bodies will allow, while somehow still managing this smooth sensibility. It’s got this pulse to it that’s hard not to bop your head to. And it’s not just Ryo’s playing that’s mesmerizing, because directly followed this section of group interplay is an astonishing solo drum performance where Yoshinori truly stakes his claim as one of Japan’s greatest drummers. The song is a ten minute achievement, not only in each member’s performance, but in Ryo’s incredible composition, standing above even the beloved standards the precede and follow it.

Like every good love letter album, it explores it all, with bop numbers, cool jazz numbers, modal numbers, and a blurring between it all into a singular vision. Its peaceful and reflective, propulsive and yet lulling, and in a growing consensus, one of jazz music’s great, lost masterpieces.

2. Mellow Dream (1977)

(Satoshi Denpo (Bass), Yoshinori Fukui (Drums), Ryo Fukui (Piano))

Following Scenery, Ryo would only go onto release one more studio album, 1977’s Mellow Dream. It is, much as the title suggests, a slightly mellow-er distillation of the sound of Scenery. The opening two tracks are the kind of contemplative jazz that fits perfectly against city blocks in the evening. They also strongly evoke the sound of Bill Evans First Trio, even playing “My Foolish Heart”, a song that is probably best know for the Bill Evan Trio’s rendition during the Village Vanguard sessions.

But this kind of overtly pretty jazz flows into the high-tempo, and explosive original composition “Baron Potato Blues” which features an incredibly bombastic interplay between the three, as well as some fluttering solo bridges from each member. Demonstrating that even in Ryo’s mellowest dreams, jazz will always have some fire in it’s belly. It leads right into another lyrical, somber valley with “What’s New”. A song whose title seems to capture the entire presence of the track. The feeling of working a long day, at a job you don’t much care for, only to walk outside to find that there’s now a light shower. Not strong enough for you to give up and find someone to drive you home, but not light enough that you can ignore it as you walk home. It’s the feeling of looking up at that grey overcast sky, and asking, ‘What’s new?’.

And much like Scenery’s “Early Summer”, this somber valley leads into “Horizon”, the album’s crowning achievement. It’s a loose, virtuoso demonstration from each of the three members for a monstrous 9 minutes, with a stronger sense of presense from each of the three members than on most of Ryo Fukui’s songs. The ‘winner’ of the performance seems to be continually changing, moment to moment, as they fight desperately to out-play one another.

After that incredible moment of high energy, as always, the album relaxes down into another mid-tempo, somber number, with a rendition of “My Funny Valentine”. It’s another lovingly played jazz standard that would serve as the last studio-recorded message from Ryo Fukui. Perhaps anticlimactic, but a beautiful way to leave it I think. Mellow Dream is not forgotten jazz classic that Scenery was, but it’s an album that I think captures many moments of equal power, and showed Ryo Fukui as a man with no shortage of love for jazz music.

3. Bootlegs/Live Albums

A lot of Ryo Fukui’s life and work is shrouded in language-barrier mystery for those of us in the west. What music we do have was originally passed through four or five hands to get its way to western ears. This means what’s known about his bootleg and live albums is frightfully little. What’s known for sure is that floating around the internet, are a single bootleg performance, and two official live albums.

The bootleg, Live At Nika is primarily distributed through music sharing websites and in full on Youtube, but there is not a single scrap of information confirming its authenticity, or even contextualizing its release/recording. Despite this it’s a great performance, whoever it is. The recording quality is fairly dismal, but the playing comes through as emotive, and with some very strong brass accompaniment. The claimed recording date is 1976 but again, impossible to confirm. The only verifiable date marking is the cover art it’s attached with. Its of such low resolution that it must have been originally compiled for digital distribution back in the mid 2000s.

The two official live albums are: In New York, a recording of his performance in the city that never sleeps in 1999, and A Letter From Slowboat, a live album from his time at the Slowboat in 2015, a Japanese music hall/club which he apparently frequently performed at. Both of which are confirmed authentic on the official Slowboat website. Both A Letter From Slowboat and In New York are high quality recordings of live performances with Ryo in masterful form. They feature some of his own compositions, new and old, as well as a good deal of classics. Both are highly recommended for fans.

4. Rest in Peace Ryo Fukui (1948 – 2016)

A performance of Fukai Aijo by jazz legend Barry Harris, dedicated to his friend, Ryo Fukui.

Discover the previous article in our Artists From Japan series, which focuses on post-hardcore quartet Number Girl.

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