Graded on a Curve: George Otsuka Quintet,
Loving You George

Long-loaded with jazz aficionados, Japan has also produced some high quality players, a list that includes drummer George Otsuka. While he recorded a bunch, including with pianist Hampton Hawes and fellow drummer Jack DeJohnette, of particular distinction is the 1975 LP by his quintet, Loving You George, which documents a night in performance at the Nemu Jazz Inn. Offering four selections launching from modal jazz into fusion, the record bypasses expectations through inspired group interplay and energetic, occasionally even wild, execution. It’s out March 26, reissued on vinyl for the first time since the decade of its original release, with an OBI strip and remastered audio through WEWANTSOUNDS.

While still mostly appreciated by aficionados of the style, the jazz history of Japan has resided outside the shadowy realms of insider knowledge for quite a while now. Just recently for instance, the BBE label has unveiled the third volume in their series J Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan. As the navigation of jazz history is, to put it mildly, a labyrinthine endeavor, curatorial efforts like BBE’s can be simultaneously illuminating and daunting, especially when covering territory beyond jazz’s native soil.

The title track from Sea Breeze, the George Otsuka Quintet’s 1971 debut, is featured on the first J Jazz volume, but only on the 3LP vinyl, which is sold out (it was issued in 2018). And Sea Breeze was cut by a completely different band save for Otsuka, so comparisons are fairly limited, though there are some similarities and a few interesting contrasts.

It’s easy to hear, if not screamingly obvious, that Loving You George is a drummer’s record, with Otsuka handling the foreground with grace, a la Blakey or Roach, rather than acting the showboat. But on Sea Breeze, he isn’t as consistently upfront, with the set much more of a mixed bag stylistically and in terms of value, ranging from the late ’60s-Blue Note-style of the opening title track (Shunzo Ohno’s trumpet inspiring thoughts of Lee Morgan), to a Beatles interpretation (“Fool on the Hill,” better than expected) to a serving of soul jazz (“Potato Chips”) that would’ve made for a nice single on Prestige.

The deepest connection to fusion on Sea Breeze is really the electric piano of Hideo Ichikawa, who also composed four of the LP’s five tracks. As mentioned, Ichikawa is gone for Loving You George, replaced at the keyboards by Fumio Karashima, who wrote the record’s only original, the opening modal seminar “Little Island.” Loving You George also nixes trumpet, with percussionist Norio Ohno filling out a band that features Mitsuaki Furuno on bass and Shozo Sasaki on sopranino and tenor saxophones.

Karashima begins “Little Island” with some rather ornate note spillage on what sounds like a conventional piano, and as the cut catches fire Sasaki’s sopranino can’t help but bring Coltrane on soprano to mind, with the aura of the Classic Quartet heightened by Karashima’s increasing (yet restrained) similarity to McCoy Tyner.

As the playing of Furuno and Otsuka is markedly distinct from Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, “Little Island” is far from a slavish imitation of the Coltrane band’s signature sound. The piece sets Loving You George forth on a non-fusion-esque course, but with Karashima clearly on Fender Rhodes for the next track, the Steve Kuhn composition “Something Everywhere,” the record’s path adjusts, and to happily non-detrimental effect.

The higher register saxophones, when in the hands of lesser players, tend to either flounder around in an inexpressive wiggle mode that can feel like it’s never going to end, or instead, just offer pleasantness that one could choose to denigrate as being smooth. Sasaki avoids both pitfalls as he stays on sopranino for “Something Everywhere,” electing for a hearty melodicism that complements the vigorous momentum of the rhythm section and Karashima’s non-noodlesome flights.

It’s again tempting, at least initially, to chalk up the bell-like crispness of the Fender Rhodes as Loving You George’s largest fusion-ish quality, but in fact “Something Everywhere,” attains an intensity that’s comparable to ’70s rock (aided by a crowd that acts like it’s at a Deep Purple concert) without succumbing to excess, even as Otsuka and Ohno dive into a tandem rhythm clinic. And late in the tack, Karashima runs his keyboard through a distortion pedal, with the results wahhed-out and wonderful, if too brief.

This rockish intensity carries over into a version of Coltrane’s “Miles’ Mode” (with Sasaki on tenor) that had me thinking of King Crimson, but just a little bit, and I do want to qualify that Otsuka and company’s bursting forward retains an intrinsic jazziness throughout, registering as descended from the once-controversial sound of Coltrane’s band circa his self-titled 1962 album (which is from where “Miles’ Mode” derives).

This is worthy of note, as by 1975, so much of the promise in the early fusion experiments had deteriorated into either second-rate spiritualistic hooey, third-rate chops hackery, or fourth-rate commercialism. Now, a closing version of Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” might seem like it’s setting the controls for the heart of the mersh (particularly as that crowd gets into the spirit of the occasion by clapping unison hands), and yeah, it kinda is, but the band keeps tabs on the gutsy approach that raises the bar of this album even as the whole falls a hair short of masterpiece status.

“Loving You” ultimately taps into the impulse of jazz players to pull tunes from assorted contexts, e.g. the Tin Pan Alley (standards), Broadway shows (more standards), the movies (“My Favorite Things,” Exodus to Jazz), and yes indeed, the pop charts, which places Otsuka and Loving You George pretty firmly in the sphere of Tradition, even from the far off territory (purely in relation to the original source of the jazz impetus, ya’ dig?) of Japan. And how cool is that? Very, I’d say…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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