Reckless. Powerful. Vital. Nonconformist. Virtuous. Free. Masayuki Takayanagi was all this and more, an incredible, uncompromising musician, whose guitar style feared no rival, not even among free screamers. Able to create music with a gravitational pull greater than that of a black hole, a hole made of music played at a cosmic level of intensity.
I met “Jojo” Masayuki Takayanagi thanks to Julian Cope and his book masterpiece called “Japrocksampler”. So Cope talks about this great guitarist: “Our brief excavation of Japan’s free-jazz underworld concludes with the splattered oblivion of electric guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, one of those extreme mavericks who combined virtuosity and extensive grasp of musical theory with radically atonal free-rock amp destruction, inspiring and pissing off contemporaries throughout the entirety of his forty-year career. Nicknamed ‘Jojo’ and infamous for his wantonly outcast broadsides, he was notably excommunicated without trial by the jazz community of the late ’60s for having described them as ‘a bunch of losers’ in the press. Plotting a musical trajectory somewhere between the free rock of the MC5’s ‘Gold’ and Albert Ayler’s ‘Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe’, Jojo’s incredible power quartet New Directions for the Arts whipped up an a-rhythmical hurricane so frenzied that it became positively peaceful right there in the eye of the storm.”
After such a presentation I started looking for his records, which is not easy, Jojo, like the rest of Japanese free musicians is practically unknown in Italy, his records are cult objects even in his homeland and his production is wide and articulated. Orienting myself in his discography was the equivalent of a parachute jump into the dark, without a net. A fascinating journey that still continues, a little by little, always adding new pieces to a kaleidoscopic, complex mosaic. This is the first of a series of posts in which I want to communicate my enthusiasm and admiration for this great, unfortunate musician. I want to start offering you one of his most representative records: “April is the cruellest month”, happily re-released in 2019 by the independent record company Blank Forms Editions of Brooklyn, New York.
This record, one of the first you have to buy to start your initiatory journey in Takayanagi’s discography, also brings with it an interesting story, described by Soejima Teruto in his book “Free Jazz in Japan A personal history”, published in English in 2018 by Public Bath Press: “Bernard Stollman of the American label ESP Records expressed serious interest in making a series of records of Japanese free jazz artists. It was 1974. At this time, the idea of releasing records on an overseas label was like a big dream in the world of Japanese jazz. ESP, the label that had released Albert Ayler and many other giants of free jazz into the world was generally known as the most advanced avant-garde specialty label in the world. Everyone associated with Japanese free jazz was drooling at the possibility. (…) It was soon decided that the first release would be by Takayanagi Masayuki New Direction Unit. Takayanagi himself was ecstatic. Recording was to take piace in Japan with the master tape to be sent to ESP. Recording was set up far April 30 and May 11, 1975 at Yamaha Studio in Shibuya. The members, apart from Takayanagi, were Mori Kenji (ts), Ino Nobuyoshi, and Yamazaki Hiroshi to make a quartet, with Ohashi in charge of production. Since it would come out in a foreign market, it needed an English title and Takayanagi suggested the line “April is the cruellest month”, from the T. S. Eliot poem.”
Soejima Teruto also wrote the notes that should have accompanied the record, and in these he certainly doesn’t hide his enthusiasm: “Inside a closed chamber, energy building up, the density of sound born from total use of all force is peaking. That unseen force is whipping around inside that space, its light sometimes leaking from the corners, an unstoppable juggernaut. That’s the picture I want you to imagine. That is the energy of New Direction Unit. The methodology of the third number, “Mass Projection,” shows us a huge explosion. That energy rapidly penetrates and spreads in infinite space, an insanity with its own meticulous structure. Only the heaviest elements of all parts of normal life are integrated into the sound.”
The music was recorded and the tape was sent to ESP, from which came the reply that the release was expected in the fall of 1975. It was assigned the catalog number ESP-disk 3023. Unfortunately, then nothing came of it. ESP found itself in a financial crisis in 1976 that prevented it from printing other music albums despite having numerous other productions already recorded and ready for release. In the same year Bernard Stollman closed the record company to avoid bankruptcy, giving the license rights to other Japanese and European labels.
According to Teruto, Takayanagi took it with Japanese philosophy, he said: “These things happen.” The record was finally released by the Kojima record company in 1991, after the death of its author.
Discogs gives me other indications instead:
April Is The Cruellest Month (CD, Album) April Disk AP-1 Japan 1991
April Is The Cruellest Month (LP, Album) Blank Forms Editions BF-008 US 2019
April Is The Cruellest Month (CD, Album) Jinya Disc B-12, Japan 2007
April Is The Cruellest Month (CD, Album + CDr) Jinya Disc B-12, JDR-002 Japan 2007
There’s a bit of confusion. What is certain is that this is a powerful record that should not be missing in the collection of any self-respecting free jazz lover. Listening to this record is like taking a leap into a malestrum of sounds and emotions. The musicians are imbued with Takayanagi’s spirituality. Calmly, he builds his own sound, in an incredible crescendo. A sound that is like a stormy sea, a gust of wind, a roaring jet engine. We are soaring into uncharted musical territory. This music, while totally unique, contains, at its core, elements where you can feel the influence of the traditions of Japanese culture. It’s the fusion of two radically different cultures, which here come together to create something unique. This is the great strength and the great revelation of Takayanagi, of New Direction, of Japanese free jazz and of Teruto himself: the awareness and desire to create something new, assimilating a cultural form foreign to them, reinterpreting it according to Japanese culture, without compromise, without preconceptions, grafting it and generating something new, spontaneous, immediate and vital. Takayanagi with his music violently shows us his elegance and introduces us to grace, his extraordinary power as a creator. The phrasing may seem excessive, perhaps heavy, but I believe that there are not, and cannot be, words that can really capture the intensity of Takayanagi’s sound.
Julian Cope was really right: “every shrill, distended, shrieking note l’ve ever heard this guy play screamed ‘Jojo was a man’.”