Review Summary: Oh, how lovely is the scenery.
Japanese jazz, casually known as Jap-Jazz, has had a very interesting history. The genre arrived to the nation due to WWII when American forces stationed in Japan brought and introduced said music from overseas. After a few decades, it evolved like it did in the West with slight differences. The main difference was Jap-Jazz wasn't as developed as American jazz. Artists like Miles Davis were already pushing the sound of fusion in the early 70s while Magical Power Mako started doing so later in the decade with a more dissonant, bare style. As a matter of fact, he and a few others started the now-signature avant-garde Japanese movement, which would explain why so much experimental music comes out of the country. The problem with the newborn experimental style of music at the time, however, was that it didn't show how to truly embrace jazz as an art form.
Because of Jap-Jazz’s confused identity, one the genre’s most important albums was Ryo Fukui’s Scenery. While other artists were busy getting to know the textures of music, self-taught pianist Ryo, accompanied by a drummer and a bass player, decided to give his own spin on American jazz. He borrowed elements of post-bop, cool jazz, and even blues to create something unique, something unheard of before: a jazz album that prioritized composition rather than improvisation. The six song album continuously proves that Ryo is the complete master at his craft. Every section flows seamlessly into one another whilst providing tasteful and rich musicality. All notes seem relevant, and decisions feel like they are taken purposefully. This leads to a very pleasing sound in which the trio perfectly complements each other. Their sound is so full, they may not even strike the listener as a three piece group initially.
Even though Ryo prioritizes composition, he still manages to show his virtuosity. His unbelievable playing displays dexterity and skill but also exhibits melodic and rhythmic awareness. On Scenery, the piano directed the band’s harmonic focus as it also added a cool, vocal-esque layer on top. A perfect example is “Early Summer,” in which Ryo crafts beautiful melodies and soon plays one of the greatest piano solos in all of jazz. However, he somehow leaves room for his group to show off as well. This is clearly seen by the fantastic drum solo later in the aforementioned song and on “Autumn Leaves.” Towards the last third of the latter, every instrument lays back to make way to an exquisite bass driven section. Clearly, all musicians shine, but the pianist’s unmistakable playing steals the show.
Scenery marks the evolution of Jap-Jazz from experimentalism to a fully fleshed-out form of expression. Ryo’s decision to acknowledge what's already done and build on top of the shoulders of giants only took the quality of Japanese music to a level never seen before. Upon its release, it received massive praise and deeply influenced Japan’s music: to this day, people cite it as an undeniable game changer. Looking back at the lovely scenery, it's hard to disagree.