Karl Blau takes us on a journey through chance encounters and intimate record shops, talking of jazz music and the "master of mistakes" Tori Kudo - making the very big world feel rather small in the process.
The most fundamentally important pieces of information I've learned about music turn out to be two things that have enriched my life to no limit. It pertains to making mistakes - something that for musicians, especially for the likes of classically trained ones such as myself, formerly brought shame and discouragement; and the accomplice piece is listening: which appears obvious at a glance - though few male musicians possess this ability it would seem.
The seasoned jazz musicians understand - and such is life for free thinking radicals - the mistake is not just something to learn from but an exciting possibility and a chance to branch out. It is through this type of paying attention with deep listening that my life path has taken turns I would have never dreamed and could never have expected.
A clash of musical colouring becomes a statement - what just happened? Your B flat major stepped on my E minor! Upon closer inspection, this feeling of angular juxtaposing has truth reflecting on life, the emotion of claustrophobia or queasiness, discomfort. The feeling of major with minor - braveness with uncertainty or sadness with hope - these are real emotions that everyone can relate to that often happen congruently.
Art and music let us dive into those clashes, to sit in the middle of the chaos and observe what is happening on the inside - if we wish. This inner listening and observing lets us get to know ourselves better, giving us a chance to deepen our sense of identity.
Tori Kudo - musician and composer from the vicinity of Matsuyama in southern Japan known as the "master of mistake" - writes music under the name of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. This fellow literally writes music in tiny vignettes analogous to the forms of classical music. I had the life-changing opportunity to open (and play the drums) for Maher with my cohort Arrington De Dionyso (K label artist from Olympia) in 2007 for 12 or so shows across Japan. Eating udon in a roadside cafe stop he was scribbling on a napkin some ideas in notation. Tori carried a suitcase that was stuffed full of sheet music to be performed.
Maher Shalal Hash Baz (a name taken from the bible literally meaning something like "he has made haste to the plunder,") for this tour had a core group of a trumpet player, a bassoonist, and Tori playing the guitar as well as Arrington playing bass clarinet and myself on drums. As well, each show featured different musicians from the region we performed in to complete his band for the evening.
It was said that Tori Kudo could turn down no one to be in his band. I remember vividly his explanation that over here to one side is the music he writes, then over on the opposite side is the players' musical ability (often less than amazing in the case of his pick-up bands). The music that actually happens is somewhere in the middle as an amorphous and merely momentary suggestion. Because of the nature of the openness of the music and the variance of who consisted the band - the songs would sound drastically different each performance.
The trail that led towards my introduction and resulting affinity for Maher Shalal Hash Baz (and as well my thirst for the understanding of "mistake") began in a most unlikely set of circumstances. I was on tour in Europe with Laura Veirs in 2004. It was among my first meetings with Simon Raymonde of Bella Union, London, through playing in Laura's band; she's been putting out stunning records with Bella Union ever since. Steve Moore on keys and I on bass and guitar flanked Veirs on stage as her backing band "The Tortured Souls."
A percentage of the enjoyment of touring for me at that time (and still!) was hitting record stores along the way. On one of our dates in Brussels, we found a tiny, tiny, little shop called Le Bonheur - which translates to "happiness." Amid hand-made album covers of tapes, CDs and records nearly everything in the shop looked intriguing. Laura holds up a CD entitled Rice Fields Silently Riping in the Night. Yes, "Riping." The album by Reiko Kudo had a flash photo of a picture of rice grasses taken at night and something stirred in me when I saw this cover art. We had never heard of this artist, but this felt like the kind of record shop to take these kinds of chances.
The album mostly features the piano and Reiko Kudo's voice like an overblown, yet very quiet flute in extremely low fidelity recordings. One song even features the hiss of empty channels as part of the percussion when in the mixing the hiss was turned up producing a sh-sh-sh-shshshsh sound. At first listen I was knee-jerkingly repulsed and at the same time sucked into this seemingly enchanted, spirit-world of a recording.
Oer the next year I would become obsessed with this album, listening especially with headphones in the dark. Especially the first two songs which I later learned features Reiko's husband Tori as well as the Tenniscoats - Ueno and Saya of Tokyo. Something so disturbing and exotic about the sparseness and the feeling like you are clearly witnessing the event stirred and connected inside of me way down deep. The over-the-top tape hiss just accented this feeling of uneasy realness.
After this year of listening over and over to this album, many times a week, I decided I should look into who this person Reiko Kudo is. For I had felt so satiated in this sound I hadn't needed to know anymore. But now - who is this person? I found not much about Reiko at first except for she has a husband who has released a tonne of music under the bizarre name Maher Shalal Hash Baz. And I began to read interviews with Tori Kudo that boggled my mind (do yourself a favour and google some at your leisure). So the name stuck in my mind and I decided that I would ask every record store I went into if they knew of and perhaps had any albums from this underground Japanese artist/group.
Finally in Sidney, Australia - and I wish I remembered the name of the shop - I found one! In the tiniest record store I've ever been in that was literally filled with stacks of CDs and records floor to ceiling which made it hard to walk around in. It was a CD in an actual letter-pressed jacket entitled Faux Depart. But what was this? As I peer through the liner notes my eyes bulge as I read "recorded by Arrington De Dionyso in Olympia, Washington"!? Released on my friend McCloud Zicmuse's label Yik-Yak? I stood for a while dumbfounded and confused and delighted.
The recordings are rugged, to put it lightly, but the music piqued my curiosity with horns and very strange arrangements of musical vignettes. Nex,t I would find Blues DuJour, high fidelity by comparison, quite possibly Kudo's magnum opus released on Stephen McRobbie's (of Scottish band The Pastels) label Geographic. The Tenniscoats also featured on this brilliant record of the most bizarre pop songs and suggestions of music.
The years that follow would bring a K release to my doorstep - another Arrington production called L'Autre Cap. In that same year of 2007, Arrington and I ended up touring Japan as my release Beneath Waves came out on Tokyo's 7EP which also featured Kudo's releases. During that trip, I would find myself standing in Tobe of prefecture Ehime in Tori's parent's living room where Ueno Takashi recorded Rice Fields Silently Riping in the Night on a half inch, 8-track recorder.
I can't remember which jazz musician I heard say this on a TED talk I watched years ago - something to the tune of "the only true mistake is when no one is paying attention to respond." For the listener such as myself, it can wake me up and let me know I am participating, not just observing. If you're listening and feel the awkwardness and the art form is open, these at-first-unwelcome happenings may blossom into something unexpected; and heck! they may even change your life.