RYO FUKUI: SCENERY, 1976

Nothing makes me appreciate the internet more than the little moments I unexpectedly discover a record that has been buried for twenty, thirty or more years. If you are here on this page you probably – who am I kidding? – you obviously know what I mean; these “oh, I’m once more on this part of YouTube where I clicked on a full album video and can’t even finish it because there are tons of suggestions next to it that have these really interesting names and covers and since I don’t want to lose out on a single one let’s open them all in other tabs but shit next to those other full album vids are other great-looking suggestions I’m basically fucked and good riddance going early to bed tonight” moments.

That is exactly why the internet was made for, in my opinion, opening up our worlds to new experiences and preserving what merits to be preserved. Things like Ryo Fukui’s marvellous jazz album Scenery from 1976 for example – if it wasn’t for the internet this man’s brilliant debut, and the rest of his short body of work, would’ve probably been shrined away forever, never discovered by the West in the early 00s, and only be remembered in his homeland Japan.

Fukui, who unfortunately passed away from a lymphoma last year, was a self-taught jazz pianist based in Sapporo, Japan. He, like the majority of Japan, became fascinated with jazz following the end of World War II. Meanwhile in America (and the rest of the world) listeners were busier forgetting about jazz as popular music and demanding more danceable styles like funk, soul, and rock. All the old masters were struggling to stay relevant among the new generation and so went on to fuse jazz with the newest popular trends. Miles Davis dove deeply into jazz-rock and psychedelic sounds, Freddie Hubbard moved to smooth jazz and never turned back, Don Cherry attempted to add Eastern influences and philosophies to the genre and Herbie Hancock experimented with synthesisers and futuristic funk. Even the traditionalist John Coltrane moved beyond bop before his sudden death, exploring the realm of free jazz alongside Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.

Japan, however, continued its flirtation with swing music and traditional jazz, getting it right at a time no one seemed to know what exactly to do with it. Fukui, especially, had acquired a deeper understanding of jazz by devouring releases from musicians such as Bill Evans, and the aforementioned Miles Davis and John Coltrane – artists who all had not only explored the musical limits of hard-bop and modal jazz but also the emotions that jazz could evoke. Scenery, the late Japanese master’s love letter to that period, however, wouldn’t find a release till much later, in the mid-1970s, well after the US jazz musicians moved to other sounds or had begun to sink into irrelevancy. Freed of pressure and of artistic ceilings, Fukui managed to record, what are quite possibly, some of the purest, most authentically passionate jazz tunes of all time. You know what Is This It by The Strokes is to rock music? (Or at least, widely considered to be because, honestly, I actually fail to hear it.) If not: The band’s debut is seen to be the perfect representation of nearly 40 years of rock music. A record that only people who were deeply in love with the genre could have made. Scenery is exactly that but for jazz music (and doesn’t fall short on that promise like Is This It does – just in case if your relationship with that record is as equally unsatisfying as my own).

Scenery consists of a mixture of original compositions and classic jazz standards, such as “Willow Weep For Me” or “I Want To Talk About You”, which, as already stated several times, was very unusual at the time. Many jazz musicians were unable to perform simple standards, even if they wanted to, due to the lack of commercial appeal. If new shapes of jazz barely enabled artists to survive (if you can call it that) than performing old classics would be signing a death sentence on themselves. Fukui and his trio though could and, as a matter of fact, did, and how! These days, and also to some extent already at the time, hard-bop and jazz became synonymous with intellectual posturing – reserved for the elite, the plebeian and simple man excluded– but there’s none of that worldview to be found in Fukui’s vision and phenomenal playing. The trio performs these tunes with a passion and energy that transmit genuine emotion, love for the style and care for the listener that you’re left sure of the lack of jazz’s cynicism and elitist stigma. This is jazz for everyone with a heart. Is it possible to withstand the melancholic dreaming of “I Want To Talk To You” if you have ever fallen in love? Or if you lived one single conscious day? I personally argue that it is impossible. It feels like decoding your heart while listening and it feels like the trio does the same while playing. Exploring in a playful manner all the things lived and left behind; these recollections in the scatting piano lines and the blissful bass underpinnings. And although all of these tunes have existed in some form or another for years by the time Fukui’s trio picked them up, they all seem improvised. As if the record is inventing itself while the musicians, or you the listener, remember what has been or even what could’ve been.

But none of this would have been possible if Fukui and his musicians, drummer Yoshinori Fukui and bassist Satoshi Denpo, weren’t exceptional players. Ryo himself is on par with Bill Evans, with all respect to the master. As lyrical and emotive as the Village Vanguard era but with less emphasis on technical complexity. It all feels lighter (although still jaw-dropping). Every note hits hard and with purpose, making comparisons to Thelonious Monk not far-fetched either, but there is a tangible immediacy to it that is very unique to Fukui’s lyrical playing and although full of strength there’s no harshness – these arrangements are by no means hard, in fact they are serene and beautiful even when Fukui hits the hard soloes. Even when Yoshinori bursts into, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular drum solo of the past century in “Early Summer”, it never grates the ears. There’s a unique swing that proves irresistible. And God, how but how good is that section in “Early Summer” when Fukui plays an absolutely stunning solo and Yoshinori comes in for his own solo solidifying why he’s considered one of the best Japanese drummers of all time? That section where, for instance, the stuttering riff builds up before exploding into a mid-section where every member of the trio seems to attempt to outplay each other? How could those fragile bodies not break beneath all the emotion and speed? That’s a miracle. It stand above the standards that preceded and followed it.

Really, I don’t want to overhype it here (maybe I already did), I don’t want you to be let down, maybe cool down a bit before you put this on, forget a little about my words, really, if you know that all that has been said could have had manipulated you, do yourself a favour save the YouTube link for later and forget about this article for a week or two and then just put the record on, lean back and see what it means to you.

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