Galaxy-brained Giant of Japanese Jazz

Background

Ryo Kawasaki did Backyard Global the old fashioned way, without the internet. The sole son of a busy and older Japanese diplomat and multi-lingual mother of colonial imperial origins, the world was at his doorstep from birth. Encouraged by his mother, Kawasaki knew how to read sheet music prior to starting school. His later contributions to the world are almost surely the result of his wide array of interests from astronomy, tinkering with electronics, and American jazz.

Through adulthood, he had his finger in many different pies. He began performing live music in high school, studied quantum physics at university, and learned sound engineering from manufacturing giant, Yamaha. Soon after college, he moved to New York City and began a whirlwind career during the height of 70s new jazz. Kawasaki performed with legends such as B. B. King, George Benson, Carols Santana, and more. As one of the first Japanese nationals signed to an American label, he released his first album, Juice, in 1976.

Touring in Zagreb, Croatia 2018

As he was touring, he leaned on his interest in electronics and invented his own guitar synthesizer. This led Japanese audio equipment company, Fostex, to ask him to use their multi-track recorder and mastering system to create the world’s first all-digital album Ryo. He used only the system and a single nylon-string guitar for the whole album. Techniques used for this hard-to-find album are demonstrated in his song Hawaiian Caravan. Soon after, he took a hiatus from music to teach himself programming to create a synthesizer for the new home computer system, Commodore 64. It wouldn’t be unfair to say he was pivotal in creating early versions of Apple GarageBand or FL Studio.

Kawasaki would continue to learn new styles such as Indian Raga, create albums from a variety of genres, and tour for decades. He passed suddenly and unexpectedly in 2020 while in Estonia. No doubt, he had more to offer the world with his innovative and exploratory spirit.


Thoughts

“Algorithm demands your attention”

I don’t really have a method of discovery planned out for Backyard Global and usually just stumble upon more things than I could ever write about. In this case, it stumbled upon me, or rather the algorithm forced Juice into my rotation. This is a good case study for the system knowing more about what I want than I do as Juice is a totally pleasurable, albeit somewhat generic, stream of early jazz fusion. If you’ve listened to a single second of Herbie Hancock, you’ll know what to expect.

As I dug a little deeper into his discography, admittedly mostly because his fascinating biography, I found some of the more experimental works. Hawaiian Caravan above is still tame compared to the opening track of his second album, Ring Toss where Kawasaki’s expanding interest in Indian music is really on display.

Overall, his work is enjoyable and with so many influences, there’s a piece for almost any occasion. If nothing else, throw him in your rotation to teach the algorithm to send you some curveballs of your own.


Sources

Wikipedia // MusicTech // Billboard


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