What a Japanese Pasta Chef Taught Me About Jazz

What a Japanese Pasta Chef Taught Me About Jazz

Lessons Learned Playing Bass On Tour in Japan

Growing up in Jersey (cue the Sopranos theme) and living in NYC, I’ve had my fair share of great pasta cooked by Italians. You could imagine how surprised I was, when the best cooked pasta dish I had ever eaten, was prepared by a Japanese chef in Chōshi, a small city 3 hours east of Tokyo. The chef’s name was Toshiaki Yanase, and cooking pasta wasn’t even his main gig; he also ran a small fruit stand! His life story, and his dishes ended up being symbolic to much of what I experienced in the country, and drew some interesting parallels to improving in music. I was on tour with a wonderful Japanese pianist named Yuki Futami. And while traveling throughout the country, inspiring encounters like these were all too common-some directly related to music, and others like in the case with Toshi, perhaps a bit more metaphorical. I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned during my stay.

Understanding and Recreating What You Love- The Road to Proficiency

When we tasted Toshi’s food we were obviously startled by how legit it was, and just had to know where he learned to cook pasta so authentically. Toshi explained how enamored he was with Italian food, how he would try to understand and copy well-cooked Italian dishes he had in Japan. Eventually, he even found his way to Italy to study with some experts. He studied Italian cuisine in great detail and focused on trying to replicate it to it’s core essence, an approach which seemed to permeate the Japanese process for improving at nearly anything. It turned out this wasn’t even a rarity, there were a ton of Japanese cooks making great Italian food in Japan, and in fact, as Toshi shared with us, Japanese pasta cooks were now even being sought after in Italy! This process of great interest and admiration, followed by methodical dissection of a subject, culminating in the ability to faithfully recreate something is so applicable to playing music. It’s what we look to do with playing jazz at early developmental stages especially. That same day we ate at Toshi’s, I got to meet some jazz enthusiasts who were a total embodiment of this.

At Toshi’s café, some hobbyists who enjoyed playing jazz had a jam session. Will they be playing next week at The Village Vanguard? Well, no, but man did they sound quite authentic and pretty swinging! I’d say even more so than many hobbyists and some jazz school students I’ve met in the states! Some self-taught, some taking lessons, their stories had many parallels. None were looking to pursue jazz as a profession, but they all had a great passion in their approach to it. Yoshiko, an English teacher, who initially seemed so embarrassed and shy to play, impressed us all with her chord voicing and feel that showed a Bill Evans influence. A man who’s name I only knew as “Jazz Daddy”, a jovial aeronautical engineer, showed a big Grant Green influence on guitar. Those are a few examples from that particular night, but throughout our three week tour, enthusiasts like that kept popping up everywhere. The big takeaway for me was, even if you have a day gig and jazz is just a hobby, there is still enough time to get a basic, authentic feel and competence in playing jazz; these people were living proof!

What impressed me most wasn’t necessarily technique or burning chops, but recognizable influences. It was obvious these people had certain musicians they really dug, and had taken care and effort to check it out a bit by listening, transcribing, and internalizing.  You would be hard-pressed to find a jazz great who hasn’t done the very same thing! All the legends we look up to went through the same process, and are an amalgamation of a few distinct influences, while adding their own thing to the mix. Just like with Toshi’s pasta, detailed examination followed by faithful recreation yields great results! So for people still new to learning jazz (and anyone for that matter), find the players you love- transcribe, analyze, and play along to their records! You’ll be surprised with what comes out when you jam with your friends!

A side note on the same subject. This deep level of listening and analyzing wasn’t only inherent in musicians, but also with the audiences we encountered. Japan had some of the hippest record stores I have ever seen, and even jazz listening groups where people would get together and simply check out records on a high-fi stereo monthly while taking notes. Japanese fans seemed to treat each concert like a classical recital. No one talked or ate, and all of the subtle nuances of the music could be communicated to the audience (but rest assured, they clapped and showed great enthusiasm for the music between solos and tunes). Some listeners knew the history of the music so well it actually made me a bit self conscious! No wonder people trying to play jazz there put the same kind of care into learning the music so authentically!

The Beauty of Simplicity  

Toshi’s pasta, like much of the food in Japan, wasn’t overly flashy or in your face. One had some tomatoes and roasted vegetables with olive oil, while another had a nice mushroom cream sauce. The beauty of it was more in how well the noodles were cooked, the delicate balance of the dish, and the purity of each ingredient. Toshi had such strong cooking fundamentals. Cooking that seemed simple on the surface, but had a lot of depth to it upon further examination. I came to learn how exploring the beauty, purity, and interaction of simple elements was a big part of the Japanese aesthetic. From the stoic and ancient shrines we saw, to the subtle and clean flavored meals we ate, to the sleek minimal nature of the Shinkansen train we rode on, it was clear great care was taken to preserve and highlight pure form. It was an aesthetic my heart quickly grew fond of (my stomach too!). There were two big lessons I pulled away from it that applied to musicians.

At the early stages of learning to improvise, a strong grasp of the fundamentals, and being able to play logically, deliberately, and simply is so important.  Anytime a student sounds confused improvising over a tune, continually gets lost, or doesn’t lock in with the tempo, it can be attributed to a skill deficit in a major music fundamental.  You could equate it to a cook trying to prepare an elaborate dish when they can’t even really cook rice well or even make an omelette. Use practice time effectively by putting most of your effort towards deep internalization of the basics. Jazz students still in the early stages of their development shouldn’t be learning diminished and altered licks if they can’t sound competent on a major chord. Horn players still struggling to play eighth note lines should perhaps learn how to play a walking bass line over changes first. Put time into playing long tones on your instrument, playing in tune, knowing your major/minor scales and arpeggios in all keys, being able to quickly do a roman numeral analysis of a tune, and being able to play with the metronome on long beats like 20 bpm. Some more experienced musicians might be rolling their eyes at me, but its crazy how many of the students I encounter are stuck in a rut with their development due to skipping the meat and potatoes of playing music. They sort of gloss over many of the basics while vaguely approximating the more advanced concepts. Focusing on strong internalization of the basic fundamentals will lead to huge developments in your playing with a more conscious digestion of complex concepts that come your way later down the road. Check out Bill Evans talking with his brother about just this very thing:

For myself, this concept of beauty in simplicity, helped center my own musical process. Especially for composition, it taught me to take part in celebrating more minimal and pure musical elements. While performing, it taught me to “cut the fat”, or try to remove the unnecessary extraneous aspects of my playing. It’s a mindset I could see myself continually revisiting and learning things from over many years.


The last lesson I learned while touring in Japan regarded efficiency. I learned about the notoriously long hours workers endured in the country and it made me wonder how some people got anything done outside of their jobs! Yet, Japan seemed filled with people who had very in-depth hobbies (musical and otherwise) which many took to quite a serious level.  Take the aforementioned “Jazz Daddy” who played nice blues and jazz guitar. This guy likely worked crazy long hours and probably had to study so much to be working with planes, yet he still had time to become pretty swinging on guitar. How did these people with day jobs have time be good at playing music? The answer to my question laid hidden in Japan’s lifestyle, its modern day conveniences, its city planning, and the very infrastructure of trains and buses we were using throughout our stay.

Japan has a wonderful system of mass transit, that makes MTA look downright pitiful (as if it doesn’t already). But seriously, it was incredible-punctual, spotlessly clean, much better gates, signs that were legible, announcements in multiple languages, and friendly attendants.  There are vending machines everywhere, convenience stores with legitimately great food, and very cool locker systems throughout the city. Stores are also closer together, with many more businesses squeezed into a smaller radius. Tokyo made New York City feel like Los Angeles sprawl by comparison. I could see that even if people were overworked and limited on personal time, there was at least a system of efficiency in place to use that free time as productively as possible. How can we do the same in our musical practice?

Let’s pose a question. What’s more valuable- five minutes of directed focused practice or five hours of unaware practicing? Obviously the five minutes is more valuable, which demonstrates how little time really matters in the equation. Focused practicing yields exponentially more results and is what we are always aiming for. If you find yourself drifting off and losing conscious attention to what you are working on, stop, put the instrument down and regroup. Efficient practice involves always making each exercise a learning experience and one that requires you to be an active participant. If you are practicing long tones, play with a tuner, or have the metronome on offbeats and constantly be very aware of your time and intonation. Make your brain actually do work while practicing, and you will be doing more than simply moving your fingers. Getting your mind active while practicing is key to cognition and improvement. To summarize, use your time efficiently and don’t be a passive practicer! Here is Kenny Werner talking about a great piece of advice he got from none other than Bill Evans that relates directly to this:

To summarize, Japan was a wonderful place and I hope to return there next summer to play music again. The amazing audiences and inspirational people were so uplifting for a performing musician. I learned a ton, and I hope relaying a bit of it could be of some help!


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Jeff is a bassist, team member and ensemble instructor at NY Ensemble Classes.
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