Thursday, August 20, 2009


Kenny Garrett
Billboard Club
Osaka, Japan

Jazz has by now become a catch-all term for a broad range of musical forms. They run the gamut from straight ahead trad to ambient exploration and everything in-between.

This was amply demonstrated last night as Kenny Garrett - acolyte of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock - offered an intriguing sample of items to be found on the menu of contemporary jazz.

The opening song's deconstructed jazz-funk features a syncopated groove over which organist Johnny Mercier lays down some irresistibly funky lines. Garrett's abstract sax is processed with pitch effects in the style of Jon Hassell.

Garrett's tone combines the lusty depth of Lester Young with the spiritual yearning of his hero John Coltrane. Mercier's gospel-tinged organ playing is sublime. Drummer Justin Brown effortlessly mixes a post-bop vocabulary with rock and hip-hop while Kona Khasu on bass is solid and inventive.

Garrett opts to play keyboard at certain moments during the set, including a one-minute keyboard interlude - childlike and off-kilter - featuring himself on Rhodes and Mercier on Hammond B3.

Then come's a bewildering MOR instrumental which would be the perfect soundtrack if movie director David Lynch ever hosted a daytime chat show.

The set starts to depart from the hard-hitting post-bop which commenced the proceedings and at times comes dangerously close to easy-listening. The band is cruising and you get the feeling they can reel off this stuff in their sleep.

But events take a dramatic turn on the next two numbers when Justin Brown introduces some furious cross-rhythmic patterns into the mix. This guy is one of the most excitingly musical drummers I've heard since Billy Higgins and the mighty crescendo of noise he unleashes is astonishing.

The band then proceed to grandstand with the singalong Happy People. The purist in me cringes at Garrett's populist calls for the audience to rise to their feet, and considering his stunning post-bop CV it seems a tad cheesy.

But what do I know? The crowd are literally on their seats and there's no doubt everyone's having a roaring good time.

Fittingly the band end their set with a three-song tribute to Japan in the form of national favorites Akatonbo (Dragonfly), Tsubasa wo kudasai (Give Me Wings) and Kojiyou no Tsuki (Moon of the Old Castle). Each is restrained and beautiful.

For an encore Garrett and Mercier offer a glorious, soulful interpretation of the Japanese national song Kimigayo. The nationalist overtones of the tune are stripped away as Garrett transforms it into a tribute to his Japanese hosts. Notwithstanding my reservations about national anthems, it's a truly affecting rendition which sends a wave of emotion around the room.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Thought Control

The Japanese National Anthem

"Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth."
Albert Einstein

Japan's long-running debate over the enforced singing of the Kimigayo national anthem at school ceremonies has taken yet another turn as a Japanese court recently rejected a lawsuit filed by a group of 135 public school teachers.

The educators rightly insist that being forced to sing the national anthem infringes upon their human rights and violates constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of thought and conscience.

Bizarrely the Yokohama District Court has ruled that requiring staff and students to stand and sing the national anthem counts as a ritual and does not enforce a specific kind of thought.

But if there's no intent or meaning behind the ritual, why implement it in the first place?

The Japanese authorities' thinking on this issue has been typically muddled.

Since 2006 the Kanagawa educational board has required school principals to report the names of teachers who refuse to sing Kimigayo despite the fact that a prefectural panel has deemed the board's action inappropriate.

Not only that, the Tokyo District Court ruled in September 2006 that teachers are not obliged to sing Kimigayo. However, only five months later Japan's Supreme Court ruled that when a Tokyo school principal ordered a music teacher to accompanying the singing of the anthem on piano, the act was constitutional.

And just one year ago Japan's education ministry published a revised education curriculum for elementary and junior high schools. It calls for promoting patriotism and requiring children between the first and sixth grades to sing the national anthem.

The new guidelines - to be implemented in elementary schools in 2011 and in junior high schools in 2012 - state: "Moral education shall be aimed at nurturing respect for (Japan's) tradition and culture . . . and at cultivating morality."

This hypocrisy from a governmental system rife with corruption and which regularly tramples over human rights. Examples include the use of forced confessions by police officers, misuse of the laws on capital crime and turning a blind eye to rape and female sex trafficking.

It's worth recalling the convulsive period of Japanese history which began in 1930 and culminated in the nation's calamitous defeat in World War II.

In an effort to impose thought control on the Japanese people, ultra-nationalists embarked upon a successful culture war in which the manipulation of musical taste played a major role. Dance halls were closed, western pop was actively discouraged and militaristic music blared across the nation's airwaves.

Since teachers played a crucial role in establishing Japan's war mobilization in the 1930s - martial drills were practiced in all Japanese schools - it's clear that the resistance of educators to reactionary nonsense will continue to be a major obstacle to the re-emergence of Japanese nationalism.

Japan has a much-admired pacifist constitution and is a largely peaceful society, but its citizens have an unhealthy respect for authority which tends toward blind obedience.

Though the nation seems to have taken on board the harsh lessons of recent history, who's to say that future economic hardship and political turmoil might not cause nationalism to rear its ugly head once more?

Therefore it's essential that peace and human rights continue to be actively promoted in the nation's classrooms and the arts used as a tool for enlightenment rather than reactionary manipulation. As long as this is done, the use of music and education to further the goals of nationalist maniacs will remain a nightmare rather than a reality.