The Labor of Practice With Masayo Koketsu

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Until Relative Pitch released Masayo Koketsu’s enthralling FUKIYA earlier this year, I was unfamiliar with the saxophonist’s work. FUKIYA was revelatory, though. In the single 46-minute improvised piece, Koketsu runs through a gamut of techniques and ideas, all infused with a free, inquisitive spirit that reflects her general approach to music. Soft sonic palettes mesh with sharp-edged runs. Emotive tonal arrangements shift direction and tempo, becoming a foundation for melodic reflections. Her range impresses, but the emotion throughout FUKIYA is utterly captivating.

After hearing the piece, I had so many questions about how this album came into being and, with the help of Relative Pitch’s Kevin Reilly, reached out to Koketsu, who was generous with her time and consideration. FUKIYA is out now on Relative Pitch, and she can be reached via her website.

I always like to begin interviews by asking about early experiences and memories related to music and sound. What are some of the first things you remember hearing when you were younger that made a lasting impression?

I listened to the piano of my two older sisters, who are three and four years older than me. That’s why I’ve played the piano since I was a little kid. My mother loved singing, so I sang songs every day. Ever since I was a little kid, there has always been music in my head.

Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

Maybe everyone will be surprised, but I decided to make a living from music when I was 27 years old after visiting New York. Of course, music was familiar to me until then, but that wasn’t a good enough reason for me to make a living as a musician, and the power of New York changed my mind.

When did you start learning an instrument and playing music yourself? And what eventually made the saxophone so appealing to you?

I played the piano by imitating my two sisters when I was around one or two years old. I started playing the saxophone when I was a high school student, and I was fascinated by the shape and tone of the saxophone.

How did you first get involved with the free jazz scene in Japan and start playing in different groups and ensembles?

To tell you the truth, I love Charlie Parker, so I was playing to be like Charlie Parker. But I was often told, “You have a free jazz feel,” or “seems like free jazz!” Ohh! It was a pain in my heart because I only loved Charlie Parker.

In 2008, I joined the band of bassist Isao Suzuki, a godfather of Japanese jazz. He not only played straight-ahead jazz, but he also played free jazz. It was the beginning of free jazz for me. Then, l joined a band called HIHOKAN. They played pop music but also had elements of Japanese traditional free jazz style like Yosuke Yamashita’s Trio. After a while, I played with many great Japanese musicians… Mashiko Sato, Yoriyuki Harada, Nobuyoshi Ino, Daisuke Fuwa, Sabu Toyozumi, Hiroshi Yamazaki, etc. 

I wanted to specifically ask about that fantastic Burning Bookshop session – I’m just curious how that came together and what your memory of that event is like? That session has so much energy and intensity, and it’s fantastic!

Isao Suzuki’s Oma Sound appeared at the OCT-LOFT Jazz Festival in Shenzhen in 2019. We played at OCT-LOFT, and after that, we had an autograph session for two hours. There was a long line waiting for us. At the same time, I got a message, “Lao Dan is waiting for you at the bookstore.” The day before, we talked a bit at the bookstore and decided, “Let’s play together tomorrow.” After the autograph session, we played at the bookstore. I feel that Lao’s sound has a deep and long history of his soul. It was an inspiring night.

How did you get involved with Relative Pitch and come to release FUKIYA with the label?

I was uploading my performances on Instagram. Kevin [Reilly, founder of Relative Pitch-ed] liked my solo performance so much and sent me a message. I was surprised at first because I had never met Kevin. However, Relative Pitch has released great music, such as MoE with Mette Rasmussen or Chris Pitsiokos. I have met them in Tokyo and quite like them. In addition, many unique artists from all over the world have been released on Relative Pitch. Above all, I wanted to record a solo performance. So Kevin’s request was the same as my wish! I’m very lucky! At first, I wanted to record in New York. However, because of COVID-19, I was unable to, so I recorded FUKIYA in Tokyo.

It’s really an incredible album. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of recording this piece of music? Was this something you composed, or is it improvised (or some combination of the two)?

FUKIYA is all improvisation. To be exact, it is the recording of the second day, DAY2, in the session. The first recording, DAY1, was only 35 minutes long, and it was a little short. I recorded everything again rather than just adding more to that first recording, so DAY1 and DAY2 are entirely different performances. FUKIYA is ultimately a record of a day – DAY2.

What was your mindset like when you were playing this piece? What ideas and messages are you hoping to convey?

I was playing a frequency that came down from a higher self, and I totally trusted that higher self. I thought, “I know that my soul is deeper than the 12 tones I’ve learned so far.” So I played carefully in that frequency. I think a solo performance is an excellent chance to channel this frequency and create this sound.

By the way, the title “FUKIYA” was decided after I finished recording. This one time, an acupuncturist and Aikido teacher told me, “Playing the saxophone is manual labor, and it’s like a FUKIYA.” I kept hearing the word “FUKIYA” on a loop in my head, so I intuitively decided on the title FUKIYA for this album.

What were some of the most significant challenges you had to overcome to make FUKIYA a reality?

Improvisational music is a time for me to dive deep into my subconscious. I have yin and yang, or angels and demons. I embrace them all, and I make music for them. I don’t decide anything I will play in advance, so the music will stagnate if I get lost even for a moment. I meditated so I would have a strong sense of self going into the recordings. What is important is to trust my life and to know my mission and vision in this life.

So what will come next for you in 2022? Are there other things and performances you are working on?

Right now, I am enjoying playing the conch and didgeridoo. These instruments have such rich overtones. I have to focus on my physical sensations when I play them; conch and didgeridoo are instruments that expand my consciousness. Interestingly, the conch and didgeridoos have no fingerings. It may be a chance to discover the relationship between myself and fingering on the saxophone.

Also, I have some original bands in Tokyo, and I want many people worldwide to listen. Thank you very much for reading this through to the end. I’m delighted and appreciative. I plan to come to New York in the spring of 2023 and look forward to meeting everyone.

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