The Japanese Jazz scene came into its own after the end of WWII. During the war, jazz was banned in Japan as its American roots made it the music of the enemy.
After the end of the war, western forces occupied the country, and the jazz scene began to flourish. Since then, Japanese Jazz has proliferated into a variety of subgenres from nu-jazz, to acid jazz and jazz fusion.
The genre incorporates a broad range of influences from all over the world making Japanese jazz particularly diverse in sound. Japanese jazz has had a boost in popularity in recent years with some of the genre’s classic albums gaining popularity on YouTube.
The smooth sound of early Japanese jazz artists have also been sampled in a variety of modern music from indie artists to SoundCloud rappers bringing the genre more recognition.
Although Japanese jazz artists from the 70s and 80s are receiving more recognition, the genre is very much alive and thriving with a lot of active contemporary groups. This article will introduce you to some classic names within the genre as well as emerging contemporary Japanese jazz musicians.
Check out our Japanese jazz Spotify playlist here to hear the artists featured on this list.
SOIL & ‘’PIMP’’ SESSIONS
Formed from the Tokyo club scene at the turn of the millennium, the eccentric SOIL & ‘’PIMP’’ SESSIONS are one of the most well-known Japanese jazz bands around.
They take inspiration from a wide range of jazz genres from bebop to Latin American jazz.
The sextet has put out an impressive 15 albums since their conception in 2001. Enter into the chaos that these jazz innovators have to offer by starting with ‘Spartacus Love Theme’ off their 2014 album Brother’s & Sister’s.
Jazz Pianist Ryo Fukui put out his first album Scenery in 1976 which has become an all-time classic Japanese jazz album.
The album exemplifies Ryo Fukui’s dexterity and talent as a jazz pianist making this album not only a pleasure to listen to but technically impressive. At the time of its release, this album was virtually ignored by American audiences but recently the album increased in popularity significantly due to exposure via YouTube.
Scenery has experienced such attention in recent years that it has now been reprinted for sale. Sadly, Ryo Fukui never got to see the love this album now commonly receives, but its consolidation as a classic within the genre continues his legacy.
Kyoto Jazz Massive
Kyoto Jazz Massive were one of the first nu-jazz groups, incorporating electronic and funk elements into their music. Brothers Shuya and Yoshihiro Okino started DJing and remixing tracks in the early 90s and are still releasing music together.
The album Message from A New Dawn released in 2021 contains some excellent tracks such as ‘Astral Ascension’ and ‘Primal Echo.’
Kyoto Jazz Massive represents an exciting part of the contemporary scene, melding funk with jazz excellently. The group is signed to German record label Compost Records which is known for progressive nu-jazz, incorporating elements from genres as diverse as techno and bossa nova.
United Future Organisation
Formed in the 1990s from the underground Tokyo club scene, United Future Organisation (sometimes referred to as UFO) were one of the groups that pioneered the genre of Japanese acid jazz.
The nu-jazz trio incorporated styles from hip hop, breakbeat, and jazz to create some of the coolest music to come out of this genre.
Tracks like ‘LOUD MINORITY’ and ‘I LOVE MY BABY my baby loves jazz’ from their 1992 album Jazzin’ became club classics and remain great dance tunes to this day.
While Toshio Matsuura quit in the late 90s, the two remaining members, Tadashi Yabe and Raphael Sebbag, continued to put out music as United Future Organisation. Their albums Jazzin’ and Bon Voyage are not to be missed.
Hiroshi Suzuki is one of the most-revered Japanese jazz artists, even if most listeners are only familiar with his work thanks to the number of times his music has been sampled.
The song ‘Romance’ from the album Cat released in 1975 has been sampled most notably in the J.Cole remix of ‘Can I Kick it?’ by A Tribe Called Quest and in a $uicideboy$ song as well as numerous others.
The original is definitely worth listening to and Cat in particular remains an undisputed classic within the Japanese jazz genre.
Masabumi Kikuchi, was a legendary jazz pianist both known to New York and Japanese audiences in his lifetime.
Kikuchi worked with the likes of Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Mccoy Tyner, and other renowned names in the world of jazz. Throughout his career Kikuchi explored a variety of genres from experimental and avant-garde to classical and fusion.
If you want a taste of Kikuchi’s experimental music, then check out his 1971 release Posey: The Man Who Keeps Washing His Hands.
Last year in 2021, six years after his passing, the label Redhook released Kikuchi’s final studio recordings which featured several versions of the track ‘My Favourite Things’ as well as 4 other tracks.
Playing saxophone and flute, Sadao Watanabe is amongst the best-known Japanese jazz artists. Throughout his career he has put out an incredible amount of music, surpassing a total of 70 albums of which he led.
Wantanabe incorporated bossa nova influences into his music and from the mid-1960s played a variety of styles with his own quartet.
As they toured Japan and the rest of the world the group performed bop, jazz-rock, and Brazilian music. Watanabe also promoted jazz music across Japan through his radio show ‘My Dead Life’ for over 20 years starting in the 1970s. Well into his eighties, Watanabe has continued to release music.
His last release was Sadao 2019: Live at Blue Note Tokyo was a concert album where he performed alongside John Patitucci, Russell Ferrante and Steve Gadd.
TRI4TH are a jazz quintet from Tokyo who create danceable jazz music. The group are known for their engaging live performances and have performed all over the world at various festivals.
Last year the group celebrated their 15th anniversary of the formation of the band with an anniversary tour and the release of their most recent album GIFT.
This album is energetic and fun, so a brilliant introduction to TRI4TH’s discography. The song ‘Guns of Saxophone’ from their 2017 album 4TH Rebellion is a great place to start.
Shigeo Sekito is another renowned Japanese jazz musician, especially famous for his proficiency on the Electone.
Throughout the 70s and 80s Sekito released four LPs as part of a series entitled the ‘Special Sounds Series.’
The riff in his most famous track by far, ‘The Word 2,’ was used by indie artist Mac Demarco in his song ‘Chamber of Reflection.’ Special Sounds Volume 2 remains his most listened to album and feels like a time capsule to 1970s Japan with the sounds of the electric organ.
Jazztronik is the performing name of Ryota Nozak, a Japanese DJ and producer who combines elements of Japanese jazz with house music.
His work as Jazztronik has gained him international popularity performing in America, United Kingdom and across the rest of Europe.
Nozak draws on influences from classical jazz and uses them in both ambient and house music. Jazztronik is certainly one of the best names creating Japanese nu-jazz currently. His 2003 album SET FREE is his most popular, and a great way into his discography.