Album Spotlights focus on specific (usually vintage) albums. Album Spotlight articles will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
My Album Spotlights typically focus on vintage albums. In this Spotlight I focus on Wamono Groove, a compilation album released in January of this year, technically making it a new release. However, its contents are anything but. Like amber containing flesh from prehistoric creatures, the rare recordings Wamono Groove preserves in its polyvinyl chloride are significant. To be more specific, it’s a collection of funky jazz from 1976 with the primary instruments being Japanese. I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?
Honestly, I don’t recall how I became acquainted with this particular title, but I’m very glad I did. The music is a throwback and the Japanese influence gives it a refreshing twist. Wamono Groove features 3 giants of Japanese music: Arranger Kiyoshi Yamaya, koto legend Toshiko Yonekawa, and shakuhachi master, Kifu Mitsuhashi.
Kiyoshi Yamaya started playing baritone sax in local Japanese jazz bands in in 1953. Just a few years later he was arranging and recording Japanese big bands. He became a key figure in Japanese jazz and founded the Contemporary Sound Orchestra in the mid-70’s. With his CSO, Yamaya merged jazz funk with traditional Japanese melodies and instruments. Yamaya passed away in 2002 at age 70.
Koto is the national instrument of Japan and is played by plucking the 13 strings with 3 fingers. The instrument stretches 71” long and has moveable bridges. Toshiko Yonekawa studied koto since age 3. She held her first concert at age 8 and performed on national radio at just 12 years old. According to Wamono Groove’s liner notes, “Her unique style of koto playing is widely recognized due to the extreme accuracy of the intonation and rhythm, as well as the unequaled beauty of the instrument’s sonority. After a life decorated with awards and prizes, Toshiko Yonekawa was named a Living National Treasure in 1996.” Yonekawa died in 2005 at the age of 92.
Kifu Mitsuhashi plays shakuhachi. Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute made in various lengths. It contains a small piece of ivory at the edge of the blowing end to further vary the sound. Mitsuhashi has toured the world performing classical and contemporary compositions with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, to name a few. In 2020, Mitsuhashi was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun.
Here’s a list of the other musicians who performed on Wamono Groove’s tracks:
Kazuyoshi Okayama: drums on all tracks
Kiyoshi Sugimoto: guitar on all tracks except A1 by Mitsuo Murakami
Keisuke Egusa: piano on A3, A5, B2 and B4
Minoru Kuribayashi: piano on A4, B3 and B5
Hiromu Hisatomi: piano on A2 and B1
Naoya Matsuoka: piano on A1
Kimio Koizumi: bass on A1, A2, A3, A5, B1, B2 and B4
Kunimitsu Inaba: bass on A4, B3 and B5
Isao Kanayama: vibraphone on A1, A3, A4, A5, B2, B3, B4 and B5
Ryusei Matsuzaki: vibraphone on A2 and B1
Osamu Nakajima: percussion on A4
Hiroo Umezawa: percussion on A5
Tetsuo Fushimi and Takehisa Suzuki: trumpets on B3 and B5
Yoshitsugu Nishimura and Tadataka Nakazawa: trombones on B3 and B5
Jake Concepcion: tenor sax on B3 and B5
“I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?”
The opening track, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta, sounds rather mysterious, and at times, out of space, as if it had been randomly plucked from a Space: 1999 episode. My favorite track, Hohai-Bushi, features some fantastic keyboard, guitar, and flute work. It sounds exactly like a 1976 funky jazz tune should. I wish it had gone on forever. In Otemoyan and Yagi-Bushi, you can practically taste the Japanese flavor. Aizu Bandaisan is more adventurous, taking your ears for a full funky ride. Soma Nagareyama, on the other hand, sounds like a Japanese version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition from 1972.
Considering these recordings are 46 years old and the word “mono” is part of the title, one might be concerned about the sound quality. Fear not. The tracks on Wamono Groove were originally recorded at the Nippon Columbia Studios in Japan, not some garage studio, and they’re in stereo. The songs were re-mastered in Finland from the original tapes. Moreover, the Japanese are obsessed over sound quality, so you know a lot of attention went into the recording. Rest assured, Wamono Groove will put you in the groove with nary a hint of its age.
You might think I posted this Album Spotlight at this time because Japan has been in the news lately over the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but that isn’t the case. I had actually planned on posting this Spotlight on my Recommended Stations blog earlier this year when the record was released, but it took me almost 6 months to pin down 180g Co-owner and Executive Producer Gregory Gouty and get answers to my questions for this article. Gouty is based in France and has several record projects in the works so he’s a very busy guy these days. I’m grateful he was able to carve out a little time for this special Album Spotlight and it was worth the delay:
Peter: What was your involvement with “Wamono Groove” and how did the Wamono series come about?
Greg: It started with meeting DJ Yoshizawa Dynamite in a bar in Tokyo in 2018. Me and my label-mate Max were listening to his mixes on Soundcloud. He gave some mix CDs to Max, and he also told us that he was working on some Wamono compilations to be released on CD in Japan. We thought the music [was] amazing and discussed about doing some vinyl releases outside of Japan, which are Wamono Volumes 1, 2 and 3. For Wamono Groove, Max and myself did the selection ourselves.
Peter: How would you describe the music on this record for someone who isn’t familiar with the series?
Greg: I would say that Wamono is the perfect mix of western music influences with Japanese instruments and melodies. For example, on this Wamono Groove selection, some great mixture of jazz funk/rare groove music with shakuhachi and koto, which are some traditional Japanese instruments, played by great masters of their art.
Peter: What does “Wamono” mean and why is the music on this record considered rare?
Greg: Technically “Wa” is “Japan/Japanese”, and “mono” is “something”. So Wamono is music made with Japanese sense in my opinion, being instruments, melodies or feeling. A lot of these records are from the 60s-70s and were pressed in small quantities at the time, so original copies for a lot of these records are quite rare.
Peter: What does the Japanese writing on the cover translate to?
Greg: On Wamono Groove, the three vertical lines are the artists names, with their instruments (which you can find in alphabet above the Wamono Groove title).
Peter: Have you been in contact with Kifu Mitsuhashi?
Greg: Yes, Mr. Kifu Mitsuhashi (shakuhachi player) is still alive and well. He is still playing as a professional and also a music professor. We have actually contacted him to present the project and he is very happy with the result.
Peter: This is the first time this music has been available outside of Japan?
Greg: Except in some collectors’ circles maybe, yes.
Peter: You had access to the original Columbia master tapes? The re-mastering was done in Finland? The recording is in stereo, right?
Greg: Nippon Columbia [did] the transfer from [the] master tapes (they don’t lend any master tapes; they do the transfer themselves). We work on almost all of our projects with Jukka Sarappa at Timmion Cutting Lab in Helsinki, who are really good and we are very happy with the result. Their cutting skills are phenomenal. And yes, the recording is in stereo.
Peter: Do you have a favorite track on “Wamono Groove”?
Greg: The first one with the long shakuhachi intro, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta. Puts you in the album’s mood. This track is perfect and beautiful.
Peter: The Japanese take this vintage music very seriously, don’t they?
Greg: Oh yes, any music I would say! Killer collectors over there, going super deep. In any musical style. I was living in Tokyo nearby a very small store where the guy was selling only punk music from Eastern Europe on cassette format.
Peter: Is this kind of music still performed in Japan?
Greg: There is still a lot of music today that we could call Wamono, mixing various musical influences from all over the world with a Japanese touch, such as Ajate for example.
Peter: Was this music played on radio stations in Japan in the 70’s or was it mainly intended for record buyers and live performances?
Greg: The music in the Wamono Groove compilation was more featured in some kind of “seasonal” albums about seasons, places (mountains, etc…).
Peter: Tell me a little about your company, 180g. What projects do you have in the works for this year?
Greg: We are just starting a new compilation series called “WaJazz”, exploring Japanese jazz with music selection by world-renowned expert Yusuke Ogawa.
And we also have a sub-label called 180g x Disk Union, made in collaboration with Japanese record stores Disk Union, where we release contemporary Brazilian music such as the new Leonardo Marques album to be out in September.
Peter: With COVID supply chain issues, is it a challenge to manufacture records today?
Greg: Yes, all pressing factories are full and we have to book pressing capacities a year in advance even if we don’t know yet what we will press. We have to be very organized and work on releases well in advance.
Peter: Any final thoughts about “Wamono Groove” or the music?
Greg: Thanks to you, Peter, and all people who are interested in this music and are helping us [spread] it. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there is still a lot of great Japanese music, old and new, to be discovered!
What’s In Your Wallet?
Frankly, it isn’t cheap to get your Wamono Groove on. The record will set you back $36 from Amazon where it enjoys a 4.2 star rating. I purchased my copy direct from Bandcamp which cost me about $35 including shipping. As I’ve pointed out before, I don’t get free samples, nor do I earn a commission if you buy something I recommend, which is partly why I ask for your support through Patreon. That said, the unique Japanese jazz funk fusion of Wamono Groove is a delight for the ears and well worth the investment. It’s also pressed on 180g heavy vinyl and includes a reverse board inner jacket. I should mention there’s a less expensive digital download option, as you prefer. Hats off to the musical archeologists at 180g for uncovering this rare, lost music, carefully preserving it, and making it available to the world.
By the way, if you’re into more of a disco vibe, 180g has you covered there as well with Wamono A-Z Vol. III- Japanese Light Mellow Funk, Disco & Boogie 1978-1988.
My personal thanks to Greg Gouty for his time answering my questions.
Links to purchase Wamono Groove:
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