It’s already ten years since American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer got together with Yasukatsu Oshima to make an album that is a strong contender for the best ever collaboration involving an Okinawan musician. I am very pleased to have been the go-between who put them together. The album Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer came out in April 2007 and this article for fRoots is my interview shortly afterwards with Geoffrey Keezer.
The American jazz pianist recently made a great CD with Okinawa’s Yasukatsu Oshima. John Potter tells how.
“So maybe we’re both old souls” says American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer about his recent partnership with famed Ryukyu Islands singer Yasukatsu Oshima. The pair recorded in New York last year together with a handful of jazz musicians and their album – Yasukatsu Oshima With Geoffrey Keezer – has just been released by Victor in Japan. It may not be the first time an Okinawan sanshin has joined forces with a piano but there hasn’t been anything quite like this before, where a traditional Ryukyu musician has been plucked from his own setting and dropped into a New York studio with previously unfamiliar musicians.
Thankfully, the results are all we could have hoped for and Keezer’s sensitivity, understanding and sheer love of the islands’ music quickly dispel any misgivings. After the first few tentative tracks it comes to life with a remarkable version of the traditional ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, probably the highlight and centrepiece of the album. In fact, it’s on the more adventurous tracks that the CD succeeds most, leaving us to wonder if future experiments might be on the way. The selections on the album are also nicely balanced with four songs each from the Okinawa and Yaeyama islands plus two new Oshima compositions.
Yasukatsu Oshima is already well-known to Okinawan music aficionados of these pages, but Geoffrey Keezer is from a very different musical world. Born into a musical family in Wisconsin in 1970, he studied piano from the age of three and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at eighteen. Since those early days he has played with virtually all the living legends of jazz and appeared on countless recordings, both as leader and accompanist. His two releases in 2003, Falling Up and Sublime: Honoring The Music Of Hank Jones, were both collaborative efforts. Sublime is an ambitious set of piano duets with Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller. Falling Up features several pieces with the Hawaiian slack key guitarist, Keola Beamer. The 2005 live album Wildcrafted, captured his trio in concert at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Here we have the first official sighting of Okinawan music, with the inclusion of an instrumental cover of Sadao China’s song ‘Koikugari Bushi’.
So how did a jazz musician with such a pedigree become enthralled by Okinawan music? Keezer: “I first heard the music of the Ryukyu Islands in the early 1990s, while I was performing with a jazz group in Fukuoka, Japan. My hotel room had a cable radio system with 400 channels, and one day as I was browsing the ‘traditional Japanese music’ channels I came across the ‘Okinawa’ program. I was immediately struck by how different this music sounded from anything else I’d ever heard, yet there was something eerily familiar about it. It felt very old, like I’d known these melodies all along, as though some part of me was already deeply connected to them – like I recognized this music from a recent past life. From that day onward I sought out and listened to as much Okinawan music as I could find – Nenes, Rinsho Kadekaru, Rinken Band, Shoukichi Kina, and countless archival recordings of music from all over the Ryukyus.”
This is where I come in, for Keezer got hold of my book The Power of Okinawa and because of it – I’m happy to report – discovered Yasukatsu Oshima, subsequently buying four of his CDs at once. Realising that here was the musician he wanted to work with, Keezer contacted me out of the blue one day, and I was pleased to act as the go-between to link him up with Oshima, realising that here was someone with a similar passion to my own for Okinawan music. The two musicians met in Osaka in 2005 when Keezer was playing concerts in Japan. They immediately hit it off and soon rented a little dance studio with an upright piano in Osaka where they practised for the first time and the idea for an album began to take shape.
The Okinawan traditional music world is rather hierarchical, so I wondered if it’s like that at all in the jazz world?: “There is a little bit of that hierarchy in the jazz world, to the extent that any intelligent jazz musician realizes he/she stands on the shoulders of those that came before us, and therefore we show respect to our elder statesmen. Many of the older jazz musicians that are still around lived through some very difficult times in America, with segregation and so on. They paid a lot of those ‘dues’ so the younger generation doesn’t have to. Jazz is now a respected idiom and we play concert halls as well as the smaller clubs. Oshima has a similar spirit to a jazz musician, in that he never plays a song the exact same way twice. It was fun and challenging to play with him at first because I had transcribed the demo MD he sent me, made nicely notated piano parts and all, and when we started recording it was like, “Whoa…that’s totally different already!” I relied on my ears playing with him, the same way I do when I accompany another jazz musician.
How difficult was it to go from being a fan of Okinawan music to actually arranging and playing Okinawan songs? “There were no real mishaps. Oshima was so easy to work with. The only problem is my Japanese language skills are so bad right now. I used to live in Yokohama and my Nihongo was rockin’ then. Now, I can barely remember how to ask where the bathroom is. As for the selections, Oshima chose all of the songs initially, but at the end of the session he asked me if there was anything else I’d like to do, so we added ‘Sukikanna’.”
“I’m really thrilled with this record. I can’t wait to make another one. I hope the next one can be with a full string section.” Let’s hope their partnership is just beginning.
(fRoots Magazine Nos.290/291, August/September 2007)