After having explored the world physically and musically through songs such as “Montevideo” and “Hawaiian Caravan,” the globetrotting guitarist Ryo Kawasaki has left for a last trip to the stars, having passed away on April 13, 2020.
His thirst for knowledge wasn’t only relative to geography, but also in the field of technology where he blended both of his passions in creating a guitar synthesizer.
From Japan to the U.S. (and most recently Estonia), Kawasaki never stopped seeking ways to master his instrument by crossing as many boundaries as possible—a fitting way to remember the musician who never saw himself as playing jazz but “fusion.”
The following is from my interview with Ryo at his home in Tallinn in 2018.
Safe travels, Ryo (1947–2020).
How did your family background (a multilingual mother and a father who was a diplomat), free you up in terms of studies, ranging from music to astronomy?
My mother wanted me to study piano and ballet when I was little, but I thought that piano was meant for girls. So I started learning solfège and violin before elementary school, and in result, I read music better than text. That was a very good foundation, which developed my hands to later play ukulele and the guitar. Being very curious about how things worked, I first got interested in astronomy because I wanted to understand what life was about. I made my own telescopes and was fascinated by electronics as well, for example by asking myself how a lamp or radio worked. My father was only listening to the American radio station called FEN (Far East Network), so I listened to learn how to broadcast music. They played a lot of jazz and Hawaiian music that I really enjoyed, which made me pick up the ukulele. I was also into singing at that time, imitating Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, which triggered my melodic sense for my future composer career. There were three student clubs in my high school that I all integrated: the radio one, the jazz band, and the basketball team. Left the ukulele for the guitar at fifteen, when I started playing in a jazz ensemble in which I was both bassist and guitarist. I got pretty good at it quickly and became a member of the senior club, where a clarinetist discovered me and asked me to join his band. I already was a professional as I could read music, improvise, play gigs, and it was also at this young age that I built my first primitive synthesizer.
Building a synthesizer in high school before starting to work as a sound engineer, is it safe to say you found a way to mix both of your passions?
I studied quantum physics for four years due to my [desire] of becoming a teacher, but my activity with music then got more dominant than the rest as I formed my own band. This launched my musician career, as a record producer came to one of our shows and offered me to make an album, just before my graduation. One of the best arrangers of the company was hired, so he organized the recording session and chose all the orchestra musicians that would back me. I was reading all the arranged music without any problem, so the people playing with me thought I could make a good studio musician myself. That’s how I started getting called every day to record from nine o’clock in the morning to midnight, 24/7/365. The money for it was good, so I jumped at the chance and ended up doing this for three years. I was highly demanded, so I had to learn pretty much any styles of music, from covers of Jimi Hendrix and Santana to some Wes Montgomery type of jazz and even Japanese pop!
So what kind of musician did you consider yourself, playing all these different genres?
I played fusion, never considered myself as a jazz guitarist. I could play jazz, but that’s not what I was interested in back then. I liked rock because it was more powerful, flashy and sexy, also attracting a bigger audience. But I enjoyed the complicated and more sophisticated part of jazz. It’s intellectual music in which you can improvise spontaneously, the opposite of rock that uses only two or three chords; that was boring for me. So I started mixing both of them, adding more wildness and loudness to jazz.
By the age of twenty-five, you had pretty much played with all the greats of Japanese jazz, starting with Jiro Inagaki’s Soul Media to Takeshi Inomata & Sound Limited. Was this prolific debut beneficial as a young guitarist?
That was called crossover music, neither rock or jazz. It was trendy for jazz musicians like Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, or even George Benson to do covers of pop songs instrumentally. This would enlarge their crowds and market sales. Anyway, I became a member of this first generation of jazz-rock musicians in Japan, made several records with them, and we even had a regular TV show. At the same time, I formed my own band and got us booked for gigs personally, by knocking on the doors of Tokyo’s main clubs. When I released another solo album, I became number three in Japan’s top guitarists at only twenty-three years old. This was it for me, I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to explore and didn’t care about becoming number one or two. With a little luck, I got to play with famous musicians from the U.S. such as Jimmy Smith, Joe Henderson, or Roy Haynes. I felt something different with them than with Japanese players, so it didn’t matter how much money I was making or how popular I was because I wasn’t developing myself anymore. I was playing American and not Japanese music anyway, I thought—[and that's] what led me to move to New York.
Did you move to New York intentionally because you were feeling you had explored all your country’s music scene? That you needed some kind of revival?
I had always wanted to go live in New York, plus my father was one of the first Japanese pioneers who went to America. He graduated in Springfield’s university before becoming a diplomat. On the other hand, my mother grew up in Manchuria where the official language was Russian. My environment was full of Americans and Russians due to my parents’ friends, so even though I was educated in Japan, I never considered myself Japanese. I first went to Los Angeles when I came to the United States, to see the Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo perform. Then I went to Pittsburgh where a friend lived before finally settling in New York. I was very close friends with Teruo Nakamura, who wasn’t recognized in Japan because he started playing bass and became a professional in America. Only a few days after I arrived, he offered me to play at the Newport Jazz Festival with Joe Lee Wilson who was looking for a guitarist. And a couple months later, as I was walking back from the grocery store to my apartment, I noticed someone waiting in front of my door who turned out to be Gil Evans! I invited him in and he told me he needed a new guitarist in his band for the album The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix, that had been postponed after Jimi’s death in 1970. Actually, I never asked him how he found me! [laughs] We had a friendship of fifteen years after our first meeting and never talked about it. He was also a mentor for me and always welcomed demo tapes of my compositions when I needed constructive criticism from a respected musician such as him. I played with both Gil’s and Chico Hamilton’s bands until 1976, when I got contacted by a producer from RCA to make an album. This [1976’s Juice] became the first recording from a Japanese artist on a major label in American music’s history. Soon after, I received a call from Elvin Jones’s wife who offered me to join his band...
Could we say the scientist caught up with the musician during the ’80s, as you invented your own guitar synthesizer, created computer programs, and even produced electronic music?
I was getting more interested in making all tracks and orchestration with machines. You could say I was swapping around my interests! I started developing my guitar synthesizer, incorporating drum machines, bass machines, and guitar sounds. Then this company called Fostex invented this quarter-inch eight-track tape machine in the early ’80s, and they wanted me to test it, due to my reputation as an engineer. They gave me multiple of their machines resulting in a record entitled Ryo, which was a very challenging project. I was also into classical guitar during that period, playing some on “Adagio From ‘Concierto De Aranjuez’” while the rest of the song was done with the guitar synthesizer. I did another album in the same way in 1983 before quitting music and focusing on the Commodore 64 computer. I learned how to program and created a prototype of a music software, that was presented in a convention of computer companies in Japan. A factory from Wisconsin found my display interesting and offered me a contract to make three [pieces of] software for them. It was then that I started programming house music, [and] pressed 12-inch singles. [It was] the most appropriate genre to experiment with the midi program I’d wrote. Founding my own record label [Satellites Records], I had to do every task by myself including pressing the singles and shipping hundreds of them physically! Also, I had to attend parties each night to study people’s reactions and observe what kind of intro or break they would jump up to.
As a musical innovator yourself, what was your reaction when discovering you had been sampled multiple times by producers during the rise of hip-hop in the ’90s?
Any recognition is welcomed, especially when it’s associated with royalties! Puff Daddy’s album sold two million copies worldwide, and I touched four cents for each record sold, what made around eighty thousand dollars. There’s also Kool G Rap, who used one of my songs in 1995, but not all artists asked for authorizations, so I only knew about it when I discovered the internet in 2001. I tried to litigate for them to pay something back, but there’s a statute of limitations that’s different in each state. There’s a discovery rule that leaves a period of two years to make a claim, starting when you found out about it. But in New York it’s based on the release date, so if it came out in 1995, my rights expired in 1997. I ended up failing, as I spent thousands of dollars on a lawyer for nothing to happen.