In recent years, Giovanni Di Domenico has recorded and performed in numerous contexts, in duos and ensembles, with Akira Sakata, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Jim O’Rourke. A new jazz quartet, Bonjintan, features all four musicians playing compositions written and arranged by Sakata. Following two tours of Japan in two years, a first CD has been released which contains a live performance, recorded in January 2017 at Pit Inn, Tokyo.
Inspired at a young age by John Coltrane, whom he saw perform in Japan in 1966, Sakata’s own activities as a saxophonist flow from his early connections with Kaoru Abe and his involvement with the Yosuke Yamashita Trio in the 1970s. In a recent interview with Lasse Marhaug for Personal Best, Sakata describes how a hiatus from performing in the 1990s was in large part ended because of the energy and encouragement he found among O’Rourke and other younger players, such as Chris Corsano, who were then playing in Japan, in the 2000s.
O’Rourke, resident in Japan for the past eleven years, has his own extensive background of playing in free improvisational contexts in the US, Europe and Japan since the 1990s, with collaborators including Eddie Prévost, Han Bennink, Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson among countless others. The Bonjintan quartet is the first time that he has exclusively played upright bass.
Yamamoto, the youngest member of the quartet has kept a relentless schedule of concerts and recording over the past several years, including tours with Di Domenico outside of Japan, and with O’Rourke and Eiko Ishibashi in the group Kafka’s Ibiki. Domenico, Yamamoto and O’Rourke have also recorded and released two albums as a trio, Delivery Health.
Bonjintan’s self-titled album is released on Sakata’s own Daphnia label. Along with two originals, ‘Dance’ and ‘Nosagyo’, the concert includes ‘Ondo no Hunauta’, a folk song from Sakata’s home city Hiroshima –previously recorded in a distinctly different, electronic funk version on his solo album Fishermans.com (2000) – as well Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’. Sakata’s fiery sax, his silences and impassioned vocal passages are here complemented by Di Domenico’s expansive piano explorations, flowing from relentless, melodic flurries to agitated, staccato accents; Yamamoto’s textured, eruptive percussion and O’Rourke’s articulate, anchoring bass.
Di Domenico explains that “Bonjintan means The Diary (Tan) of the ‘Bon’ Man (where ‘Jin’ is man, ‘Bon’ is an almost untranslatable kanji – it is deep, spiritual, totally Japanese in feeling…).”
Below he shares a diary of his own, from the most recent tour of northern Japan in June 2017.
“The first stage we played on the 2017 tour. It’s a Buddhist temple, close to the city of Sendai. I am not at all for religion, nor churches, so the ‘holy’ feeling did not affect me so much – but it was nice to receive a cup of extremely good tea the morning after. We were shown into a special room for that, everything was very ceremonial and so ‘wabi’, it can’t fail to affect you somehow. I love that side of Japan, the care they take to be good hosts and the kindness (even if sometimes it’s just a matter of etiquette) they show you.”
“Our ‘tour van’ at one of the dozens of rest stations we stopped by. Since the 2016 Bonjintan tour, I have started to travel Japan by car. Previously, I only travelled the country by bus, slow train, extra slow train and fast train (a couple of times). By car it was something else. We covered close to 6,000km across the two tours, from north to south and west. And it’s wonderful to do that with Sakata, Jim and Tatsuhisa. I had the ‘older’ guy’s vision, the younger man’s and the ‘expat’ (albeit almost Japanese now!) and western eye on things. Having Jim there helped also in terms of translating and just chatting in English. He made me discover ways of seeing Japan that I could have not have done without him. In general, touring with Sakata in Japan made me discover a whole lot of things about the country and its customs, something I cherish a lot.”
“Warning: birds shitting. Outside the gas station. The Japanese are very concerned about everybody.”
“These two pictures were taken in the 2011 tsunami region. The wall is intended to stop the next tsunamis (all comments are superfluous, obviously…). The factory was torn down as a result of the disaster.”
“The trio behind Sakata is already a band, Delivery Health. So for me all this is really a dream! As a trio we have a sound that we had to put at the service of Sakata’s sound. It was at times difficult but I think in doing it we discovered how to make these two worlds work together. Jim on double bass is just as you would imagine him to be. He might not have the ‘chops’ and technique of Dave Holland or Gary Peacock, but his musical mind makes him do things that not even those bass gods would do. He thinks as a musician and producer of music – and he actually has pretty damn good timing!”
“A session of CD-R making (and signing) just before a show. In Japan, people like to have a souvenir from a particular place or moment of their life. After the first shows the CDs had all sold out, so we had to make new CD-Rs featuring a previous show from the tour. This was mixed in the car by Jim. The over the top, lo-fi cover was printed at a 7-Eleven! That was great fun, having to be a CD factory. Thanks to this we sold over 50 of these CD-Rs.”
“A ‘Soapland’ opposite the club we played in Niigata. Soaplands are ostensibly massage parlours – in reality they are brothels. During the two times we have toured Japan, we played all sorts of concerts spaces: big halls, jazz clubs, rock clubs, sake breweries, Buddhist temples, private houses (of eccentric scientists, friends of Sakata who is a marine biologist), hotels… So I had the chance to see the very different ways of occupying oneself as a musician in Japan. Depending on the place, the audience would also change. In big halls (generally in smaller towns) the audience was almost all over 60. Some of the towns we visited looked like ghost cities. You feel enormously the aging of the townsfolk and the fact that almost everybody moved to Tokyo or other large cities in the last 20-30 years or more. Some places had a somewhat dark and sad feel to them. But then we also played big city clubs, often full of youngsters with a much more ‘urban’ feel.”
“This is one of the coolest places we played, a jazz kissa called Basie. The owner (the guy with the sunglasses) is a real figure of the jazz scene of Tohoku (northern Japan). He befriended a lot of jazz greats and has a record collection and a hi-fi system that people all over the world come to listen to. It is really something amazing. The whole place just feels so ‘jazz’, but the kind of jazz feel you find in Japan; this type of bar was where you would go to listen to music in the ’50s/’60s/’70s when it was too expensive to buy records. The bar owner would buy it and you’d go there to listen. After our show they put the chairs into the ‘listening’ position, in front of the speakers, as if they were a band – fantastic!”
“The ‘forest bed’, on a walk I took on one of our days off. The forests in Japan look beautiful from the outside and are mesmerising on the inside.”
“A mega screen in the lobby of one of the hotels.”
“The advertising of yaki soba in a restaurant. I liked the metaphysical aspect of it, flying chopsticks and all…”
“Sakata is one gem of a musician, that I knew already. But doing these two tours with him made this belief even stronger. Having previously toured with him only outside of Japan, I feel I understand something more about his unique personality when he is in his home country, putting his story and musicianship into a new perspective. It is a wonderful experience for me to be able to play with these fabulous musicians.”
All images courtesy of Giovanni Di Domenico.
Bonjintan’s first CD is released by Daphnia. For orders outside Japan, contact firstname.lastname@example.org