Born: February 12 Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
At the forefront of Brooklyn’s burgeoning big band scene, the Japanese-born composer Asuka Kakitani has attracted some of New York’s finest jazz artists with her adventurous, melodically charged charts. After several years of regular performances around New York City, the dynamically supple 18-piece Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra makes a stunning debut with Bloom, due out January 26 on Nineteen-Eight Records.
Outside of Lincoln Center, virtually all jazz orchestras exist as a labor of love. Kakitani has fostered the necessary dedication among her peers with writing so bright, vivid and personal that it inspires some of New York’s leading improvisers to wondrously expressive heights. Prominently featured among the album’s stellar cast are saxophonist John O’Gallagher, trombonist Jacob Garchik, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Mike Eckroth, drummer Mark Ferber, and Portuguese-born vocalist Sara Serpa,
“I want to give these fantastic musicians space to express themselves,” says Kakitani, 36. “I write the music and they play it, and I choose players that I feel tell a story. On this recording I got really emotional over how much they understand my music, while at the same time expressing themselves with such passion.”
A series of watercolor washed canvases, Bloom focuses on Kakitani’s original compositions and arrangements, music that unfolds with poetic flair and canny narrative drive. The album opens with the gloriously Technicolor title track, which Kakitani wrote as a BMI Manny Albam commission. While the tune isn’t strictly programmatic, Kakitani clearly draws from nature in the way the sinuously rising introduction evokes the time-lapse emergence of a sun- kissed bloom. The piece climaxes with a Ferber solo that’s a model of melodic drum work, elegant, sassy and precise.
While she often draws inspiration from the natural world, Kakitani also finds soaring sounds in literature and the canvases of modernist masters. “Dance One,” which earned the 2006 BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Award, flowed out of the experience of gazing at Henri Matisse's “Dance 1,” the iconic painting of five naked, hands-linked dancers caught in mid-stride, almost levitating on luminous fields of blue and green. In Kakitani’s adroit hands the dance is life itself, with O’Gallagher’s celebratory and fleet-footed alto eventually giving way to intimations of crepuscular decay with Garchik’s dark, brooding trombone. “I was so inspired by Matisse’s lines and energy,” Kakitani says. “The colors are very strong.”
Kakitani is at her most lyrical on “Opened, Opened” and “Dragonfly's Glasses,” two pieces from her suite “Re-imaging My Childhood,” which premiered in 2009. Funded in part by the Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center, the pieces are striking reinterpretations of traditional Japanese children’s songs. While the melodies are beautifully unadorned, she finds rich harmonies and gracefully moving lines amidst the playful tunes, creating a beguiling sound unlike any other jazz orchestra on the scene.
Born in the Osaka area, Kakitani grew up in a musical family that encouraged her early piano explorations. She studied Western classical music through her teenage years, and discovered jazz around 19, when hearing Bud Powell led to a life-changing epiphany. “That was really shocking,” Kakitani says. “I wanted to play like him.” Benefiting from her homeland’s deep affinity for jazz, she absorbed not just Powell, but singular bebop stylists like Sonny Clark and Hampton Hawes, players far more renowned in Japan than the U.S.
Studying jazz in Kyoto, she immersed herself in the city’s scene, but eventually she realized that in order to fulfill her promise she needed to come to America. A scholarship to Berklee College of Music brought her to Boston in January of 2002, an experience that transformed her from a player into a composer. While she had little writing experience before Berklee, by the time she graduated in 2004 she had honed an impressive book of big band pieces.
“Before I went to Berklee I almost never wrote tunes,” Kakitani says. “I was surprised it was so much fun. I took a class writing for five horns and did an arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things’ and brought it to school band. That was my first bigger arrangement. I thought this is great! From there I started writing for bigger and bigger ensembles.” When it came time to settle on a major, Kakitani chose jazz composition. “Playing piano, I wanted to play like Bud or Monk, like there’s a box I have to fit in,” she says. “But I feel freer as a composer.”
Kakitani’s post-Berklee career received a major boost when the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, which was founded by legendary composer/arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam, accepted her into the rigorous program. Run by Mike Abene and Jim McNeely at the time, the BMI workshop provided Kakitani with invaluable writing opportunities and introduced her to the New York scene. When the commute from Boston to New York became burdensome, she relocated to the Big Apple. It was through the BMI workshop that Kakitani met Bloom producer JC Sanford, a trombonist, composer and conductor who works as a contractor for BMI bands.
With encouragement from Sanford and others, she assembled players for her first New York reading by cold calling some four-dozen musicians. Heartened by the generous response, the experienced emboldened her to pursue her orchestral vision. For her maiden voyage presenting her music in New York City she collaborated with Diva bassist Noriko Ueda. After the first gig, Kakitani decided to launch her own group, drawing on the connections forged through three years at the BMI workshop. Her orchestra debuted in June 2009 at the Brooklyn Lyceum.
A low-key conductor who concentrates on communicating with her musicians rather than drawing attention to herself, Kakitani has grown into the role of bandleader, gaining increasing confidence with each performance. While her band’s sound is singular, she is not alone in finding her primary expressive vehicle in a jazz orchestra. Her band has thrived as part of a scene in Brooklyn that centers on Size Matters, a Monday night big band showcase at Brooklyn’s Tea Lounge that Sanford launched in March 2010.
It’s not surprising that the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra would thrive in such a creative hothouse, but even given the fertile environment, there’s no accounting for Bloom, a confoundingly beautiful album that effortlessly elides burdensome distinctions between East and West, composition and improvisation, soloist and ensemble.
Awards:The BMI Foundation’s seventh annual Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in 2006.
-Dan Morgenstern (jazz historian, author, former editor of DownBeat, Director of the Institute of Jazz at Rutgers University)