Akira Tana Takes “Otonowa” From Japan to Summer Fest – San Jose Jazz

Akira Tana Takes "Otonowa" From Japan to Summer Fest


A California native, acclaimed drummer Akira Tana has worked with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Hubert Laws, Milt Jackson, Lena Horne and the Manhattan Transfer since earning degrees from Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music. Having appeared on over 150 recordings, Tana has co-led the quintet TanaReid with bassist Rufus Reid, releasing five albums, two for Concord Records and three on Evidence Music. Other projects of his include work with the Super Secret Agent Men and contributions to the Japanese release JAZZaNOVA, soon to be released stateside. His most recent musical outing, Otonowa, furthers the jazz tradition of re-imagining classic songs and melodies by pairing jazz musicianship with famed Japanese folk and pop melodies. The group's core originally formed for a benefit in an art gallery, yet when the concept grew and the idea of merging the ensemble's shared jazz chops and Japanese heritage came about, they recorded an album with an intent to deliver it to Japanese audiences on a trip to visit the hard-hit areas of Northern Japan. A superb musical effort that pairs these two worlds well, Jazz Inside had great things to say in their review, closing by remarking that, "Akira Tana's wonderful group is truly doing something very special here and it is a fine example of how music can break down cultural barriers and expose the commonality within us all." As a first glimpse of what’s to come in August when Otonowa performs at Summer Fest, we spoke with Mr. Tana to find out a bit more about how the group's tribute performance morphed into full-blown project, how Japan's fascination and love for jazz stretches many decades, and how the group aim to continue spreading awareness for the ongoing relief efforts in Northern Japan. What are your first memories of jazz? As a kid, my older brothers were jazz fans. They had Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck CDs. My older brothers brought me to jazz concerts at Stanford. I grew up in Palo Alto. Walk me through the creation of Otonowa. The whole idea of the band stems from the early 90s, when I did a CD called Sound Circle. That’s what “otonowa” translates to in English, pretty much. We put a little group together when someone in Fairfax was doing a benefit for the earthquake and tsunami victims in 2011. It was either then or the first anniversary of the earthquake. [That idea] morphed itself into bringing this group to play for survivors and communities up in Northern Japan, where they’re still rebuilding. When you put that ensemble together, had you put together the tunes on the album? Actually, since I had never really had this kind of group before, we just got together to play. It was a great opportunity. The following year, we played for another benefit put on by the same people, [and it] was broadcast on Marin TV. The idea of going to Japan came up and we wanted to record a CD to bring over there, [with] some of the proceeds going toward the relief effort. We recorded it last year in January. It was funded by a big local jazz supporter named Carl Yamada. He’s the one responsible for us getting this recording, and the CD features jazz arrangements of traditional Japanese folk songs and pop. How did you arrive at that concept? It’s very fascinating and a great merger of the jazz sensibility and your ensemble’s collective Japanese heritage. I think it all came together because of what we wanted to do for the communities in Northern Japan, [along with] the fact that the group is primarily, when everyone is available, of Japanese heritage. There are some great writers and arrangers in the band. [Otonowa pianist] Art Hirahara’s mother organized an “ikebana” [Japanese Flower Arranging] event in San Francisco in the fall of 2012. She asked Art to assemble a few musicians to perform some Japanese songs, which Art arranged in the jazz idiom.  These arrangements were the genesis for what Otonowa performs today. What was that time in Japan like? It must have been quite interesting, since your motive was to do more than just perform. There’s almost this therapeutic side to your efforts. Yeah, [but] we weren’t the only musical group to do this. There were tons and tons of musical groups of many kinds up there – real well-known rock musicians and country music people, people from Japan . . . It’s not like I think what we’re doing was anything unique. We were just part of a global concern for the area, trying to do what we can to help the communities and the people there. The CD and [concept], jazz interpretations of Japanese songs, is not really new either. It’s been done many times by many different artists, not only of Japanese music but different kinds of folk music from around the world. That’s a jazz tradition, taking pop songs and doing jazz interpretations of it. Coltrane did it with “My Favorite Things.” Jazz songs come from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals, pretty much. With you being in Japan and interacting directly with the people, what was the reception like? The reception was very warm. It wasn’t like playing these big concert halls, because we actually had started from scratch. I’d like to mention that Saki Kono, a vocalist who lives in Japan, was very instrumental in organizing all this stuff, making contacts with the community and basically from nothing. You read about these catastrophes, but you don’t really get the impact until you actually go there and see it, see how it has affected the communities and the people who live in the communities, especially the youth. This one trumpet player [we met], a young kid -- he and his brother were separated from their family for two days. Those kinds of experience are something that sticks with you, and that’s one of the reasons why the reception was so warm. People knew these songs. People grew up with these songs. We'd see elderly people with tears in their eyes because we’re playing these songs that they know. It’s very spiritually uplifting for them to hear it, and for us to see that reaction. We’re trying to create this tour this summer, and, hopefully in subsequent years, to make it an annual trek. But it costs money because we’re all doing it for no fees. [We want] to raise money to at least cover our expenses and stuff like that. Which is why you recently rolled out an indiegogo campaign to raise funds to return to Japan. Why is it important to keep this going? Is it to continue to raise awareness? Yeah. It’s the same thing you hear from various organizations, about not forgetting. For example, here in the States with Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, once it gets out of the media, people tend to just kind of think that everything is taken care of and it’s all finished – that all the cities are rebuilt and everything is hunky dory, but it’s really not. These efforts are to continue to raise awareness that these people still are suffering and shouldn’t be forgotten. When are you trying to return to Japan? We already have stuff lined up in July, I think July 16-26. We’re going back to some of the same communities that we first went to. We made some very nice contacts with musicians and supporters of music who are arranging this for us now. They thought it was great, because we work with kids too, teaching about music and playing their instruments and stuff like that. Once you say “We’re doing it for the kids,” all of a sudden people go “Wow, that’s great.” To see the kids really benefit from our teaching is very satisfying. I wanted to revisit the point you made about not playing concert halls on your first trip. When I watched the tour EPK, it looked like for some of these, you were performing wherever you could set up sound equipment and get your work out to the community. Do you think that was an added inspiration, since you were directly in those affected communities? Yeah. It was really grassroots. For experienced touring musicians, you get accustomed to certain aspects of touring, like great hotel rooms or transportation. You travel and people take care of you, whereas when we went, we were doing everything ourselves. People donated equipment for us to use. We rented a van and we did the driving, sometimes going to two communities in one day. It was pretty rigorous. Under normal circumstances, in terms of touring, you’d think “I certainly wouldn’t want to do this pro bono,” but I think the most paramount thing about this was that we were doing it for a reason. We were in the community as opposed to playing these concert halls where people pay money to come in. No one paid any money. We were giving CD’s away and interacting with people because, first of all, a lot of these people couldn’t afford to go to any venue. When I was living in New York, I used to do things for an organization called Jazz Mobile. They had a portable stage that would go to various communities in Harlem and the Bronx and Brooklyn and do concerts on streets. [This was] kind of a similar thing. It’s like bringing Meals on Wheels or something. [Laughs] It’s really gratifying. I’m sure it’s a great feeling, not only to bring this great music to those communities but to have the chance to bring it back locally. You’ll be performing as part of Summer Fest 2014, our 25th iteration, this coming August. That’s the genesis of how I feel San Jose Jazz has gotten involved with the group. We’re really appreciative of the fact that we’ll be playing the festival. [We're thankful for] San Jose Jazz’s support going beyond just the performance by the group, but supporting our activities leading up to the festival. It’s really great. Closing out here, it’s a really broad question, but how do you draw the connection and history of Japan’s relation to jazz music? As you pointed out, Otonowa’s approach isn’t completely unique, but it’s a continuation of merging those two traditions. What’s jazz’s place in relation to Japan? I actually wrote a thesis on this for college. [Laughs] So you’re the right person to ask then! It’s a very interesting question, because Japan, as an insular country, has always imported their language, their writing and their religion. A lot of the things about Japanese culture are actually borrowed, adapted and assimilated to [fit their] needs. Being a Western art form, which jazz as, it goes back almost to the beginning, the 20’s and 30’s, when they had jazz influenced music. There’s always been influence, and there’s always been a community of big fans [in Japan]. They’re one of the biggest fans of jazz in the world. It’s very natural, and there’s a lot of great Japanese musicians that come out of Japan who have been coming out for years. Some from them are real famous in the older generation, like Sadao Watanabe and Toshiko Akiyoshi and a host of others. For Japanese and jazz to get together, it’s natural. I think it goes to show you how universal the music is. It’s the same anywhere you go in the world, actually. In Europe, South America . . . Even in other parts of the world. [Jazz is] even in India and China now. The music really is an international art form, so it’s really natural for Japanese and Japan as a country to welcome it, assimilate it and be part of its cultural environment. UPDATE: Akira Tana and Otonowa's indiegogo campaign has officially ended. However, if you would still like to contribute, you can visit our donation page or make a check out to San Jose Jazz, noting in either case that you would like the money to go to "Otonowa." For more info on Otonowa, visit otonowa-usa.com.

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