Otonowa plays Berkeley: To Japan, With Love

Akira Tana and Otonowa play California Jazz Conservatory (formerly Jazzschool) in Berkeley Sunday June 29. Photo: Otonowa

What started as a one-off fundraiser for the people of northern Japan stricken by the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 has turned into a musical mission of healing and remembrance. When drummer Akira Tana, bassist Ken Okada and flutist/saxophonist Masaru Koga first came together in the summer of 2011 at Fairfax’s Elsewhere Gallery, they brought in jazz arrangements of traditional Japanese songs, some dating back centuries. The music was so powerful that they ended up presenting it to stricken communities in Japan last year, and Sunday afternoon’s California Jazz Conservatory performance will raise funds for the trio’s return trip in July.

“We played in communities that aren’t there any more, at temporary shopping centers and housing units,” says the Palo Alto-raised Tana, whose father Daisho Tana led the Berkeley Buddhist Temple at 2121 Channing Way in the 1930s. “These songs hit home. You realize what a healing force for the spirit music can be, and it reminds me of why we got into doing this stuff.” 

Called Otonowa, which means “sound circle” in Japanese, the band has played in the area several times, including the spring Satsuki Bazaar and Arts Festival at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. In 2013, an expanded version of the ensemble with pianist Art Hirahara recorded the music on a gorgeous album Otonowa on Tana’s label Cannatuna.

Otonowa means “sound circle” in Japanese, and it’s no coincidence that Tana released an acclaimed trio session in 1992 with his musical partner, bassist Rufus Reid, and pianist Kei Akagi titled Sound Circle. After recording with veteran masters like Zoot Sims, Art Farmer, and J.J. Johnson, Tana got his first taste of bandleading with TanaReid, a band he founded with Rufus Reid. During the course of the 1990s the group toured internationally, released six CDs and helped boost the careers of brilliant young improvisers like tenor saxophonists Mark Turner and Ralph Moore and pianist Rob Schneiderman (a former Berkeley resident and Cal mathematics PhD).


Tana is quick to point out that the idea of turning Japanese songs into vehicles for jazz improvisation is nothing new. Trumpeter Lee Morgan arranged the folk song “Desert Moonlight” on his hit 1965 Blue Note album The Rumproller, saxophonist/composer Benny Golson interpreted “Tombo” (Red Dragonfly) by the great composer Kosaku Yamada with his New Jazztet in the early 1980s, and of course pianist/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi found a career’s worth of inspiration in Japanese folk idioms.

What sets Otonowa apart is the sheer concentrated beauty of their music. Featuring Koga on various saxophones, flute, and shakuhachi, the quartet arrangements hew close to the original melodies. Some are familiar, like “Ue O Muite Arukou” (better known as the pop hit “Sukiyaki”), but most are new to American ears. For Japanese people, who grew up with many of the melodies “there’s a feeling that comes with hearing them that gives a sense of peace, a sense of home, a sense of longing,” says Koga, who was born in Japan and grew up moving between Europe and the United States.

Like at most of Otonowa’s Bay Area performances, Sunday’s concert features the original trio with Tana, Koga, Okada, and pianist Ben Stolorow. With San Jose Jazz serving as fiscal sponsor, Otonowa will be presenting the music upon their return from Japan at Summer Fest in downtown San Jose on Aug. 9.

While the disaster has been eclipsed by subsequent natural and human-fomented calamities, the people of coastal northwest Japan are still very much struggling to rebuild their lives. Despite the region’s hardship, the band experienced humanity at its best on the 2013 tour.

“The spirit is amazing,” Koga says. “We were there to cheer them up, and they took us in and gave us a lot of good energy, a lot of strength. Here they are rebuilding from scratch and they took care of us and fed us. The hospitality was really humbling.”


Recommended gig: John Schott at Jupiter on Saturday

John Schott
John Schott

Berkeley guitarist John Schott reunites with his rootsy trio Dream Kitchen at Jupiter on Saturday. Featuring insistently grooving drummer John Hanes and Marc Bolin on tuba, bass trombone, and sometimes jug, the group rummages around the nation’s basement, finding new uses for foundational rhythms and motifs that have long ago evolved into more familiar forms and styles.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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