FEATURE / INTERVIEW: Takeshi Asai

Takeshi Asai
Photo Credit: DTC Visual Lab

New York-based Japanese pianist and composer TAKESHI ASAI is as cosmopolitan as they come. His childhood was in Japan - listening to The Beatles and watching jazz greats like Miles Davis and Chick Corea live at  jazz festivals; he studied at Berklee college in Boston and has a successful New York-based career ; more recently there has been time spent in France playing with his trio. With his new album "French Trio Vol. 3" just released on his own record label De Trois Cités. he talked about live recording, defying genres, and his love of...Taylor Swift. Interview by Leah Williams:

LondonJazz News: When did you first realise you wanted to be a pianist?

Takeshi Asai: It was quite late on actually. I took classical piano lessons when I was young but I didn’t like it and gave up in the end. Then when I was about twelve, I heard a neighbour playing some Beatles music - actually it was the song Let It Be - and those opening chords on the piano just inspired something in me, it was like I’d had an electric shock! I sat back down at the piano and started to play by ear and found a new love for music and a freer way of playing.

LJN: When did jazz music enter your life? Jazz is very popular in Japan, isn’t it?

TA: It certainly is, yes. There are jazz festivals in pretty much every city in Japan every year and so I was lucky enough to see some of the greats like Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke play live. It was listening to Bill Evans that really got me into jazz though; he’s still a big source of inspiration to me. Then there’s Keith Jarrett as well, of course! Like many people, his Köln concert recording where everything was improvised opened up a whole new world of potential about what’s possible and really appealed to me.

LJN: When did you first start writing your own music? Was it always this style you have now or is that something that’s developed over time?

TA: I didn’t really start properly composing until I was studying at Berklee in my late twenties. A lot of the stuff I first wrote was pop music as well! I wrote and actually recorded some pop music with friends from college. It didn’t go anywhere but it was a lot of fun and it still informs the way I write music today.

LJN: Do you find that all types of different music genres help to inspire and influence your music?

TA: Definitely. I don’t like the way that music is put in different boxes. In some ways, for that reason, I hate being called a “jazz pianist”. I listen to and am inspired by all kinds of music: classical, pop, rock, electronic, jazz. They've all got something to offer and are each more similar to each other than people like to make out. I bought a Taylor Swift album recently and really love it! In fact, one of her songs on there was co-written by Imogen Heap who’s another pop artist I really admire. The song ABC on my recent album was actually inspired by one of her songs called Speeding Cars.

LJN: Let’s talk about your album that just came out on 1st Feb: French Trio Vol. 3. You released this, as with all your albums, on your own record label De Trois Cités; why did you decided to start your own label?

TA: It was for a similar reasons really. I wanted to maintain my freedom to play around with sounds, music and styles without being hemmed in by the “genre” a record label might want me to fit into. I wanted to defy any labels and make my music the way I wanted. I did get a few major record label offers but in the end decided to take the plunge and I’m really happy I did.

LJN: You’ve released no less than 8 albums in the 5 years since you started the label - you’ve been busy!

TA: Yes! Last year alone I released 4 albums. Some of them were not necessarily planned, like for example my only solo recording that I’ve released came from a concert in New York. I wasn’t thinking about putting it out as an album but the concert went so well that it would have been a shame not to!

LJN: And French Trio Vol. 3 is also a live recording?

TA: It is, yes. That was always planned to be an album but it was a similar story in that we’d been in the studio recording but I didn’t feel like we were getting the right level of energy or excitement. Then, one night in a little town in France we played a gig where the atmosphere was just electric and it lifted the sound to a whole new level. I chose the 8 best recordings from that night and made the album from them. I’ve come to realise that when playing live music, communication between the musicians is obviously very important - and I have such a great relationship with Maxime Legrand> on drums and Pascale Combeau on bass - but what’s equally important is the communication between the musicians and the audience. When all of that is working you get something quite extraordinary.

LJN: All of the pieces on the album are your own compositions, apart from one written by Combeau and one jazz standard, Nardis. Why did you choose to include this particular standard?

TA: You know, it was actually the first jazz song I ever learnt on the piano. I loved it so much - especially as it was a Bill Evans classic - and played it constantly as a teenager. I think I eventually got sick of hearing it and hadn’t played or listened it for years when someone called it at a jazz jam last year and it was like rediscovering a lost love as I played those familiar notes. The reason I chose it to go on the album though is because it was the one piece the trio hadn’t practised or discussed at all. I just suggested it on the night and thought it resulted in a really fresh interpretation.

LJN: From all the songs you wrote on the album, do you have a favourite?

TA: Tough question! If I had to pick just one it would probably be When You Feel Sad because I just had this desire to write something truly uplifting that would put a smile on people’s faces - something we all need!

LJN: Well you’re obviously very busy but hopefully we’ll get a chance to see you soon live in the UK soon?

TA: I hope so! I’ve made a few contacts in London recently so am hoping I’ll get the chance to come and perform there soon. If not, I’ll be in Paris in the near future - just a few hours on the eurostar! (pp)

LINKS: French Trio Vol. 3 is now out on De Trois Cités label: French Trio Vol. 3 Artist website

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