Heavy Rotation is a monthly column focused on an LP in my collection. As a writer, my character is a naturally suspicious one, and I approach every album warily since I believe each harbours a secret. My hope is that I’ll be able to expose something of it for readers through listening.
This month I'm discussing Tohru Aizawa Quartet – Tachibana Vol.1, TLP-1001 Japan, 1975/Reissue BBE Records BBE469ALP, 2018
Bluster, bravado, machismo – while perfectly suited descriptors for some musician’s manner – are not the tags I would affix to the playing style of the young, amateur quartet offered a chance to record an album by hotel businessman and jazz impresario Ikujiro Tachibana in the spring of 1975. For these four college students; Tohru Aizawa, Kozoh Watanabe, brothers Tetsuya and Kyoichiroh Morimura, the words I would use are, formidable, relentless and intense. The music they recorded during that March 30th studio session ended up becoming one of most rare LPs in the history of Japanese jazz: Tohru Aizawa Quartet – Tachibana Vol. 1.
The story goes that Tachibana himself gave away most of those original copies as a sort of promotional gift or business card...
More a whispered legend in Japan than record store ghost story, the album – like many Japanese private pressings from the ‘60s and ’70s – had a minuscule print run, thought to be roughly 200 copies, and was then promptly lost and forgotten to the oceans of time – until recently. In February, 2018 BBE Records put out a limited-run LP, J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984. This compilation featured “Dead Letter” off Tachibana, which practically no one outside of Japan even knew existed, and the intensity of the cut drew attention to itself. Tony Higgins who, with Mike Peden put together J Jazz had apparently stumbled across a reference to the album in a guide book on Japanese jazz 10 years before the work on the compilation began. The two were able to track down a very surprised Aizawa (astonished to learn the album had achieved cult status in his home country, never mind even being known outside it), and work out a licensing deal for both "Dead Letter" on the J Jazz comp and a reissue of Tachibana on BBE.
Japanese hi-fi is fetishist, but you can probably knock that upstairs for Japanese jazz record collectors. Because of the quality of the recording and energy of the playing, Tachibana continues to be one of the most highly regarded LPs of the era and is spoken of with reverence within the collector’s community. It’s a perfect symbol of the constant pursuit and acquisition of the near unobtainable which pervades much of Japan, whether it’s a preoccupation with whisky, watches or art. If an object is of peerless craftsmanship, thought to exist in extremely limited quantities and has an enigmatic history, then you can count on it being highly coveted and very expensive.
With a smattering of original pressings starting to surface in recent years, Japanese collectors pounced, driving the price north of $1,000 USD on the used market. The story goes that Tachibana himself gave away most of those original copies as a sort of promotional gift or business card, so where those secondhand LPs for sale came from is anyone’s guess.
To be clear, I’m writing on the Pallas-pressed BBE reissue which I picked up through a Swiss reseller on Discogs – I’d love to have the OG, but my wallet was emphatic in its denial. Of the reissue, BBE Records writes; “The long-awaited reissue of this mythic album will include new liner notes and photos, plus fully translated notes from the original Japanese text. The album will be presented in an authentic thick card gatefold sleeve in a faithful reproduction of the original sleeve design.” To wit, the packaging on this LP is exemplary, oozing quality and on par with the Music Matters Blue Note releases that are now out-of-print.
The younger Tetsuya penned “Philosopher’s Stone,” which opens the album with vertiginous speed and puts you either on the edge of your seat, or pushed all the way back into the cushions. I’ve ridden the track both ways, and each makes you want to come up for air. It’s a brash, tour-de-force of sweat, muscle, and talent. This is an album to listen to as far to the right on your volume attenuator as possible. It’s got big dynamic swings, breakneck speed on leading edges of notes and transients, and never strays into etching up top or flab between the lower octaves – it’s tight and shows off, without artifice, just how adept this group is at blowing and swinging together. The more I turned it up, the more it impressed.
If you’re into modal compositions then Kyoichiro’s “Sacrament” (think Jerome Sabbagh, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson – to name a few) on the B-side of the first LP will strike a sharp note with its bebop and hard bop inspired chords supporting Kyoichiro Morimura’s howling solo sax. Tetsuya Morimura’s stick work is foundational in laying out the heavy timbers supporting the walls and roof of the cut, and has exquisite high-hat thwack, snap and cymbal shimmer as his foot beats a relentless totem on the kick drum.
Tonal and timbral colourations shade to a slight rose on the LP through my system, but never go red, and with repeated listening one notes an overarching stride in the mastering fidelity as a whole to neutrality, with notes remaining crisp and unrounded. Aizawa’s noodling piano that opens up Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta” maintains a playfulness throughout the cut and compliments the somewhat reserved licks Kyoichiro is able to blast out over the syncopated drumming brother Tetsuya keeps everyone floating above.
“Dead Letter” and “Samba de Orfeu” (Luiz Bonfa) round out the five tracks on the last slab of black vinyl, and it’s easy to see why Higgins and Peden chose the former cut off the LP to use in the J Jazz compilation as not only is it an original composition by leader Aizawa (though you’d never know since Tachibana claimed writing credit for all the titles), it’s a hair-straight-back emotionally transcendent jazz arrangement that defies easy categorization and is so engrossing as to lead one – like some punk ballads – to play over and over again because of its energy.
“Samba de Orfeu” is a latin-flavoured track that dips into ecclesiastical sideshow territory and seems meant to showcase the ‘high-speed’ mode of each of the quartet’s players, in particular drummer Tetsuya Morimura who one can only assume was part of the inspiration for Miles Teller’s character in the film Whiplash.
All in, this is a record that I find myself throwing on when I need motivation. The playing is ripe with talent, inspired and not only is it an audiophile’s LP in the sense of the mastering/pressing/packaging, it is ultimately a music lover’s album. The fact that it possesses a mystery-shrouded historical arc spanning a half-century only adds to the depth of the groove: A recording with impact enough to reverberate through time and arrive late, but on-point to the modern jazz scene. I think Aizawa himself said it best in this quote from the liner notes: “When music takes on an identifiable form, it is inevitable for it to lose its universality as a medium of expression. For those who are unable to catch the forms of incredible performances that some are able to fathom, it is not rare for them to think it just sounds like a cluster of sound. We were more than aware of such thinking, but we strived to only focus on the style that we wanted to play.”
You can find Tohru Aizawa Quartet – Tachibana Vol.1 HERE.