‘Scenery’ – Japan’s greatest contribution to jazz forgotten in time

Similar to the fate of works by other Japanese greats such as the abrasive avant-gardist Kaoru Abe, this record has sadly been consigned to obscurity

To discover Mr. Ryo Fukui’s 1976 debut in someone’s record collection is to find night-long conversation tinder. Despite his recent passing from malignant lymphoma, its standing, brilliance, and legacy remain no more celebrated than when he was still alive.

My own discovery came after some late night deep sea diving amongst the rarer jewels of YouTube, and the quest to gather enough coin for a copy of the 2009 vinyl repressing continues.

Death and reissues have inspired only a measly Wikipedia page on his work, so to begin, a little background is necessary.

In post-war Japan, the influence of western music which had been previously demonized by zealous societal control (Jazz was deemed the ‘music of the enemy’ by the government of the 1940’s) was now widely prevalent and ever increasingly in demand from the local population thanks to various tours by American musicians in the Pacific arena and interaction with the occupying forces.

By the time Fukui had taken upon himself the task of becoming a self-taught pianist at age 22, a vibrant jazz scene had developed which gave an ample nurturing ground to this remarkable talent. It was only six years after that ‘Scenery’ was recorded.

1970’s America was already a generation and a cultural revolution outside of the height of the jazz era and subsequent craze. Offshoots of a more danceable form were taking prescience on the stage – most notably funk and eventually disco, with rock, pop and soul filling in all the remaining space.

Stalwarts of the genre were either dead, retired or excavating new and exciting possibilities through the ground-breaking work of jazz fusion, particularly Miles Davis starting with ‘Bitches Brew’. Synthesisers, Middle Eastern scales and even conjunctional philosophies and spiritual movements were getting caught up with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Alice Coltrane.

Beyond the west however, was a scene that still carried on the tradition and pursued the near-endless creative value of jazz.

Onto the record

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Fukui only released three original LPs in his lifetime

Beginning with ‘It Could Happen to You’, Fukui grants a placid, serene introduction to the hard bop classic. The chorus sees him playfully dancing around the major scale, creating gorgeous little ornamentations to an otherwise simple chord progression.

Next is ‘I Want to talk About You’ from Coltrane’s 1958 debut, tackled with impressive, unimposing technical candour, while maintaining a fundamentally intimate aesthetic crucial to the feeling of the piece. Never overstepping the fine balance of these components is the key to Fukui’s brilliance.

‘Scenery’ reaches its apex with an original, ‘Early Summer’. The track takes full advantage of over ten minutes of tape as an ambitious, all-encompassing work, making range of the band in full swing as well as a more intimate and solemn passage.

Fukui’s furious slaps of chord progressions mark themselves as the signature melody of the piece, charging in after a clever false-flag of an introductory passage.

The frenetic energy of Fukui’s keys lead to some truly dazzling runs that slip in and out of scale to emphasise that sense of urgency and pure emotion pouring out of his fingers up and down every end of the piano.

Despite the near chaotic feel of its heights, none of his improvisations or runs feel contrived or hollow hearted – this being a remarkable feat considering that the rhythm, feel, and structure of the piece never become hostage to Fukui’s wild imagination.

‘Early Summer’ blends both of the album’s styles perfectly, lending space to the jolly, racing enthusiasm of the first half and the more sombre, reflective second half.

Yet therein lies the only complaint the record warrants: more original compositions. The almighty improvisator carried as much clout in composition as his fluid musical meanders, leaving listeners wanting for what can only be found on other records.

The title track sees a more precision-orientated approach as opposed to the broad legato sweeps that characterised the first half. Melancholic undertones give the track a surface with which to gently guide the listener toward the album’s end.

Without any great leaps, runaway solos or spotlight trade-offs between the musicians similar to that of ‘Early Summer’, ‘Scenery’ simply dwindles bit by bit until it is time to say goodnight.

1970s jazz constantly tripped over itself in attempt after attempt to emphasise individualistic grand innovation as the next great step in the genre. It most certainly left us with a legacy of the weird and wonderful as well as the groovy and energetic, but irony reigned supreme with the traditional take becoming the masterpiece of the time.

‘Scenery’ is an eclectic mix of jazz through its various eras – bop, cool jazz, and of course, modal. Fukui paid homage to them all succinctly while still applying his own temperament across the record, and though the ground remained untouched, this record deserves its place among the finest of the decade.

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