Itaru Oki, Nobuyoshi Ino, Coi Sun BaeKami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017)

oki-kamiFor the past year, I’ve felt like my visit to Japan should have included a deeper investigation into Japanese free jazz. I spent a lot of time in mainstream stores, and my time at Disk Union, the grand dame of Japanese underground records, was spent on the prog rock floor, not in the jazz/improv area.

I found an opening with Kami Fusen, newly out on the NoBusiness label. Recorded in 1996 at Café Amores in Yamaguchi, the album features two trumpets and a bassist, all three being veterans dating back to the ’70s. And while I was at it, I used Squidco to track down a 1975 album by one of the three.

Recorded in 1996 at Cafe Amores in Yamaguchi, Kami Fusen features compositions and a few standards that branch out into improvised abstractness. It’s not ecstatic jazz — more a cool flame than a bonfire, with harmonized themes and long stretches where one trumpet sits out.

The backstory is that when trumpeter Itaru Oki and bassist Nobuyoshi Ino were touring as a duo in 1996, promoter Takeo Suetomi invited Korean trumpeter Choi Sun Bae to sit in with them for this gig and recorded the results on DAT. The resulting CD is part of a collaborative series between NoBusiness and Japan’s Chap Chap Music.

Japanese music tends toward a sweetness, manifested even in their metal and rap (but not in noise, as Merzbow can attest). There are traces of that here, such as a pop-sounding progression ad the end of “Yawning Baku” or the slow, sentimental melody of the title track.

This certainly counts as a free-jazz session, though. That title track eventually splits into ragged screams of passion from one trumpet while the other trumpet (the smoother tone that I’m guessing is Bae) continues improvising melodically over the chords. “Ikiru” opens with a jagged free improvisation, with Oki on high-pitched bamboo flute against Bae’s supremely high-register trumpet squeaks.

The album closes with a standards melody, including a solo trumpet take on “I Remember Clifford” and a swingy take on “Old Folks” that builds into a playfully bouncing improvisation.

The DAT-recorded sound is pretty good. Ino’s bass — the crucial energy source that really does drive the session — is easy to hear albeit not very deep. On “Pon Pon Tea,” Ino is the one who propels the freely improvised segment. The two trumpeters follow, intertwining aggressively but leaving enough space to absorb what’s happening.

oki-phantomWhile I was at it, I wanted a taste of what these guys had done back in the ’70s, so I looked up Oki on Squidco and took a chance on Phantom Note (Offbeat, 1975). It’s a crisp free-jazz quartet date with Oki’s trumpet sounding sparkling and clear, ably matched by Yoshiaki Fujikawa on alto sax and a sharp rhythm section of Keiki Midorikawa (bass, cello) and Hozumi Tanaka (drums). Poet Gozou Yoshimasou delivers a dramatic, desperate screed amid the harsh cosmic storm of “Kodai-tenmondai (Ancient Observatory).” The album ends with the outright brutality of “Caesar and Capone.”