The auditorium was full — probably with double the people it could accommodate, and more waiting to get in. Tapping their feet and clapping along, the audience lent a ear to Japanese pianist Makoto Kuriya, who was in Delhi with his jazz ensemble for a concert last week. Like jazz, his fingers moved like waves on the piano.
Born in Kobe, the 57-year-old is one of the leading jazz musicians in Japan. With 16 albums to his credit and collaborative projects world over, across the US, Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia, Kuriya admits that early on in his career, as a musician, he was often asked why a Japanese was playing American jazz. That prompted him to compose original Japanese jazz. “We have so many renowned jazz artistes from Japan, like Sadao Watanabe, but it’s kind of sad that we’re trying to be American,” he says. Talking about Japanese jazz, a genre in its nascent stages, he says, “Japanese jazz is just a copy, unlike European jazz, which has developed its own features. In my music, I’m trying to come up with a hybrid mixture — a bit of America, Europe, Brazil and Japan. I’ve always been open to global styles.”
His own interest in jazz developed as a child, when he used to listen to American jazz. In 1980, he left Japan to study linguistics at the West Virginia State University, where he “pretended to study”. “My father was against studying music. He wanted to be a musician but failed, so he didn’t want that for his son,” he says. Nevertheless, Kuriya pursued his passion for music. After being invited to play at concerts and clubs, in the late 1980s he began playing with jazz heavyweights, including Grammy-award winning musician Chuck Mangoine, Donald Byrd, Toots Thielemans, James Moody and Tom Brown. He studied and also served as a lecturer of jazz at the University of Pittsburgh. However, in 1990, as world politics was on a cusp of change, Kuriya decided to return to his roots, and since then has added manifold to the thriving scene for jazz in Japan.