Independent labels have always been a mainstay of the Tokyo jazz scene, but this year saw a bumper crop of good music coming from small labels. While many of these artists' recordings can only be found at their shows, stacked up neatly on fold-up tables at the back of the club, a number of the larger music stores have started stocking them. That alone must be considered progress for these little-known groups, since their small labels are dedicated to vibrantly creative Tokyo jazz, rather than churning out ear candy. Recorded at small studios, homes or out-of-the-way clubs and produced, mastered or mixed by the musicians, these recordings feel handc rafted. These CDs are the top 10 picks of the past year. If you want to hear them live, check out their Web sites to get the performance schedules.
Saxophobia -- "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (Saidera Records, www.saidera.co.jp)
This saxophone quartet opens its shows by marching onto the stage playing loud and loose, and that carnival entrance sets the stage for their exuberant reworkings of jazz and popular tunes. They reharmonize numbers such as Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" into four layers of funkiness. With their distinct, individual voices, they sound at times like a sultry barbershop quartet or like free-jazz gospel. Their tight interplay, especially on the well-arranged originals, engages the audience with a swirl of rhythm, counterpoint and texturing. You'll never miss the rhythm section.
Akira Ishii Trio -- "Synchronicity" (Ewe Records, www.ewe.co.jp)
Chosen as the Japanese representative for the first-ever Synergy Live international piano trio festival in Tokyo last year, Akira Ishii received applause more on musical than national grounds. His delicacy of touch, breadth of conception and never-rushed rhythms stayed within the traditional parameters of piano trio, but beautifully so. Ishii's piano, bass and drums trio delivers carefully sculpted moods with fresh artistry.
Tetsuro Kawashima -- "True Eyes" (Ewe Records, www.ewe.co.jp)
Propelled by bassist Eddie Gomez (known for his work with Bill Evans) and drummer Billy Hart (known for his work with Stan Getz), sax man Tetsuro Kawashima takes flight on "True Eyes," his third release this year. Kawashima has outdone himself by writing eight fascinating compositions that he knew would engage the experience and artistry of Gomez and Hart. Kawashima's long flights of melodic invention sound effortless, even when fraying the edges and pushing for new sounds.
Nao Takeuchi -- "Solo" (Chitei Records, www.chitei-records.jp)
Saxophone solos are in some way a central component of jazz. So why not an entire CD of solo sax? Tenor saxophonist, flutist and bass clarinetist Nao Takeuchi took up the challenge. The opening rendition of "Love Me Tender" may at first elicit surprise, but it eases into a sustained and intense reflection on that well-known melody. Attention never flags on his extended solos as Takeuchi conjures up endlessly spiraling lines that pile in harmonic layers.
Killing Floor -- "Ratty Jass" (Captain Trip Records, plaza14.mbn.or.jp/~captaintrip)
The title captures the spirit of the band nicely. This high-energy septet invites plenty of friends on board for an unusual ride. "Jass" was one of the original New Orleans' spellings of "jazz," and the group's expansive asymmetrical sound has a similarly loose and ragged comfort to it. However, they keep the electricity very much plugged in. Heading not toward Dixieland but toward the stratosphere, this raucous, wild and fusionesque recording is the sleeper hit of the year.
Shibuya Takeshi Orchestra -- "Zutto Nishi-Ogi" (Rinsen Music, www.rinsen.co.jp)
This is one of the best recordings the longtime members of pianist Takeshi Shibuya's nonet have put together to date. The title pays homage to their favorite club, Aketa no Mise, a funky dive in Nishi-Ogikubo where they hold court once a month. The fresh and playful inventiveness of the band pulls its groove from disparate sources: funky bass, raw punkish drumming, laid-back organ, spacey guitar chords, and a free-wheeling horn section. This is unconventionality that sounds achingly beautiful.
Emergency -- "Loveman Prays for Psychical Sing" (Studio Wee, www.studiowee.com)
After the dueling effects-laden guitars rip apart the opening lines of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing," this quartet heads off in search of other "nice" tunes to deconstruct. With the help of chest-rattling bass and elephant-stampede drums, these twin guitars romp through pieces with mischievous glee. This is loud music, dressing a Burt Bacharach tune in Jimi Hendrix clothes and releasing the inner child in Lennon and McCartney's "Good Night." Somehow, they do all this with tenderness, intelligence and humor.
Natsuki Tamura Quartet -- "Hada Hada" (Libra Records, www2s.biglobe.ne.jp/~Libra)
Trumpeter Natsuki Tamura's quartet starts the title track with a melodic Middle Eastern riff and quickly catapults into unceasing improvisation. Tamura's free jazz has so much forward momentum that all predictability is swept away. Don't expect the Blue Note sound here. Instead, the four instruments -- trumpet, keyboard synthesizers (by wife Satoko Fujii), guitar and samples, and drums -- sound at times as if they're racing each other to the edge of a cliff. They then leap off, without fear. Not for the faint of heart, this densely layered, complex album is breathtaking.
Ayako Shirasaki -- "Existence" (What's New Records, www.alles.or.jp/~hirosato)
Though based in New York, pianist Ayako Shirasaki returns to her hometown Tokyo regularly for extended stays, playing in and outside the metropolis. This recording of hard-bopping originals and standards gives Shirasaki plenty of space to work her two-fisted technique. Her fierce left-hand playing works a constant pulse that opens space for the bass and drums (of first-call drummer Lewis Nash) to find variegated accents, textures and counter-patterns. With a crisp, tight and inventive CD and strong live shows, fans can only hope Shirasaki will move back full-time.
Ayako Sasaki -- "Sora" (Chitei Records, www.chitei-records.jp)
The two opening tunes on "Sora" are the most beautiful melodies on record this year. The six originals by pianist and vocalist Ayako Sasaki feel at once heart-rendingly wistful and resiliently strong, a natural union of Japanese aesthetics and jazz conceptions. Few other Japanese vocalists sing or write lyrics in Japanese, much less ones as poetic as Sasaki's. As a member of Shibusa Shirazu, a large, fluctuating collective of musicians who create an organic, groove-based style of music all their own, Sasaki invites several members of the band on board, and they enter fully into the spirit of her poignant lyrics with a strong and unassuming sense of cool.
For those music lovers who have stockings with a capacity larger than just 10 CDs, excellent recordings by Seiji Tada, Kazumi Watanabe, the Aramaki Band, Kei Akagi and the Satoko Fujii Orchestra will nicely fill them up.
Michael Pronko writes for the The Japan Times, an English language newspaper in Japan, about Japanese jazz, and jazz in general. He can be reached here.