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Three Memorable Meetings with the Japanese Guitar Icon, Yoshiaki Masuo



Guitarist Joshua Breakstone shares the times he met with Yoshiaki Masuo – the Japanese icon who played for years in Sonny Rollins’s band, as well as with Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, and many others.

Joshua Breakstone: I was just a few months past my 18th birthday when I entered The Berklee School of Music for the first of the two terms I spent in Boston from 1973-74. My initial interest in music had been rock and roll, but over the course of the previous two years, I’d fallen in love with jazz.

The teachers at Berklee were very good and opportunities to perform with musicians who in many cases played at higher levels than I were invaluable. But in retrospect, I’d have to say that the best part of being there was the social component- the opportunity to be in an environment composed of people who were passionate about music, and committed to advancing their playing. There was a lot of listening going on over the course of the school day either in class, in empty classrooms and hallways between classes, or in our apartments and dorm rooms both before and after classes- there was plenty of hanging out and exposure to new sounds. It was an educational year for sure in every sense of the word. And on top of all that, there were Paul’s Mall and The Jazz Workshop, the two main jazz clubs of the day, located just a short walk down Boylston Street from the college, where I had a chance to hear such greats as Sonny Stitt, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and many others live and in person for the first time.

And Sonny Rollins! When I came to love jazz, it was the horn players- Charlie Parker, Lee Morgan, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham- who knocked me out and, having come from a rock and roll background, I didn’t care too much for the jazz guitarists I was hearing (that appreciation would come just a bit later). But when I heard Yoshiaki Masuo with Sonny’s group (the first time was in the fall of 1973) I came to understand how wonderful the jazz guitar could be as a solo instrument as well as in an ensemble. In Masuo’s playing there was (and is) a calmness- he’s a player who is centered and, no matter how exciting his playing gets, there’s at all times focus, control, and development of ideas. And beauty, and sound. He’s a player who is in tune with his musical surroundings, ever-present in the moment. Hearing Masuo in 1973-4 was the first of the three times our lives would intersect, each occasion memorable. 

At that time Sonny Rollins was playing long solos- accompanied by the band but also, many times, unaccompanied. Sonny and the group would segue from one tune to another, sometimes within a matter of only a few seconds. The energy level was high. I remember hearing them play songs like “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Three Little Words”, “No Greater Love”, “Poinciana”, “Love Letters”, “My Ideal”, “Alfie’s Theme”, “Sonnymoon for Two”, calypsos like “ St Thomas” and “Don’t Stop The Carnival”, and ballads like “Good Morning Heartache”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, “God Bless the Child”, and “In a Sentimental Mood”.

How did Masuo manage to find his way from Japan to NY? He was born in Tokyo on 10/12/46. His father was a pioneer jazz pianist who contributed to the start of jazz in Japan and performed in clubs and on US military bases (Tachikawa, Atsugi were two) in and around Tokyo after the war. Masuo grew up hearing the music of Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson and others around the house- and not much Japanese music. There was a piano in the house and although it was his sister who took lessons, Masuo taught himself and could also play. It was a musical atmosphere and music came naturally to him. He had a favorite aunt who lived close to his home (in Tokyo, Nakanoku Araiyakushi, where he is living today) who gave him his first guitar which, with the help of his father, he soon started playing  

Around that time, his father bought a stereo (before, it was mono) and Masuo dove into his father’s record collection including recordings by Phineas Newborn Jr and Monk. What about guitarists? When his father became aware of Masuo’s interest in the guitar, he bought him a copy of Barney Kessel’s “Poll Winners 3” (with Shelley Manne and Ray Brown) which Masuo fell in love with and copied. Having read about Wes Montgomery in the Japanese jazz magazine “Swing Journal”, Masuo was inspired to go out and buy his very first record (and with his own money!), “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery”. Not long after, his father bought a Hammond B3 and so, via organist Baby Face Willette’s, “Face to Face”, Masuo heard Grant Green for the first time and subsequently bought a copy of Grant Green’s “Green Street”. (Little did he know at the time that years later he’d own a recording studio on Greene St- in NY)

When he was 18, Masuo enrolled at Waseda University in Tokyo in order to join their Modern Jazz Club. At Waseda he met lifelong friend and musical partner, the great bassist Yoshio (Chin) Suzuki (who I remember well from his years in NY and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers), and first had a chance to play with the great alto saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, who had recently returned to Japan after several years as a student at The Berklee School of Music in Boston. The following year, Masuo-san and Suzuki-san found themselves playing with Sadao Watanabe in a group that became enormously popular in Japan. The band was invited to festivals worldwide and when they appeared at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, Masuo got his first taste of NY- and wanted to come back. With the breakup of Sadao’s band, Masuo saw his chance and began making arrangements with friends Yoshio Suzuki and guitarist Takao Naoi for a trip to NY. Suzuki-san having dropped out (he came about two years later), Masuo and Takao arrived in NY on June 13, 1971 (a date Masuo very happily remembers and which, I think, in Masuo’s mind is a little bit sacred!) for what was intended to be a stay of just 6 months- Takao did, in fact, return to Japan after six months, but Masuo stayed on. Initially Masuo didn’t know too many people in NY, but in addition to pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and bassist Teruo Nakamura (with whom he initially stayed), he’d met pianist Jan Hammer and bassist Gene Perla when they’d come to Japan in 1970 on a tour with Sarah Vaughn and stopped in to hear Sadao Watanabe’s group (they’d been classmates at Berklee). Gene had given Masuo his phone number and told him to get in touch if he should ever come to NY- which Masuo later did.

Not too long after his arrival in NY, Masuo started connecting with musicians and became active on the NY scene. For my part, what I wanted to find out was how one thing led to another- the progression of events that led to him joining Sonny Rollins’s band in 1973.

Masuo had connected with drummer Jimmy Madison and at a session at Jimmy’s place met alto sax great Lee Konitz with whom he started playing (along with bassist Harvey S and drummer Jimmy Madison) in 1972 at a downtown club called, “The Onliest Place” (formerly “The Half Note”). The wonderful alto saxophonist, Bob Mover, would frequently come to the club and Bob and Masuo became friends. Since they were living close by to one another in the West Village, Masuo on Thompson Street and Bob on MacDougal Street, they started getting together to practice, hang out, and also performed together as a duo at Arturo’s (on Houston Street). We’ll come back to Bob Mover shortly.

When Masuo called Gene Perla, Gene invited him to a rehearsal for an upcoming recording date. When he arrived, Masuo saw so many people there, including pianists Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, and saxophonist Dave Liebman. Even though Masuo didn’t end up playing on that occasion, he was invited not long after to record with drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonist Joe Farrell, pianist Chick Corea, and bassist Gene Perla on what would be Elvin Jones’s “Merry-Go -Round” (Blue Note).

Bob Mover (I told you we’d get back to him!) was in touch with many of the great musicians of the day. He had frequent phone conversations and often sat in with the likes of saxophone greats Lee Konitz, Phil Woods and, yes, Sonny Rollins. During a phone conversation with Sonny Rollins, Sonny asked if Bob knew any guitar players, and Bob gave him Masuo’s phone number.

At around that same time, Chick Corea was looking to put together a more electric kind of band, and invited Masuo to a rehearsal which included bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Steve Gadd. Soon after, Sonny Rollins also called and invited Masuo to a rehearsal that took place at the same studio (on 19th St) where he’d rehearsed with Chick Corea just a week before. In addition to Sonny Rollins, there were bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer David Lee, pretty much the core of the group of which Masuo would be a member for the next three years (and again for another three years from 1982).

I want to tell you- that group was musical, of course, but it was also magical. You could count on being surprised, amazed, also caressed, and many times amused (Sonny’s playing could be razor sharp one moment, and filled with humor the next). It was stream of consciousness, one idea leading to the next, one song leading to the next, it was fascinating and it was brilliant. 

I got together with Masuo recently in Tokyo (on 4/13/21) when I went up there from Kyoto, where I’m presently living, to play for a week. When I asked Masuo about the experience of playing with Sonny’s group and the influence it had on him musically, he told me this, “It was great. When I think about it, I’m always trying to get that thing, you know, in my music, I’m trying to- that’s what I’m aiming for. I guess that’s what I’m doing.”

Yoshiaki Masuo and Joshua Breakstone in Tokyo on 4/13/21

After Masuo’s second three year stint with Sonny Rollins, he bought a recording studio located at 102 Greene Street (it just happened to be one block north of the apartment at 77 Greene Street- just upstairs from drummer Rashid Ali’s club, “Ali’s Alley”- where I’d lived for a time with my sister Jill many years beforehand) called “The Studio” and his career as a working musician was put on hold as he stopped performing publicly and started the Japanese jazz label, “Jazz City” for which he produced more than 300 recordings over the next 20 years. “The Studio” closed in 2009.

As for me, by 1999 I’d done 13 recordings as a leader and after my first three (in the early 80s!), all but one (nine in all) at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. For many reasons, as we started closing in on the new century it also happened to be time for me to find a new studio, so I started asking around and soon heard about Masuo’s studio. I remember being told that it wasn’t really open to the public, that it was Masuo’s personal studio which he used for his own projects, but if he knew or liked you it might be possible to use it. So I called Masuo- and this was the second of the three times our paths crossed. Although we talked for a while, it was actually I who did most of the talking. I told him how taken I was with his playing, that I’d heard him with Sonny Rollins many times, that I’d recorded year after year at Rudy’s studio, that I was looking for a new place to record, that I’d had a recommendation to contact him….and after 15 minutes or so, after he’d agreed to let me use his studio, Masuo asked me my name- I couldn’t believe that I’d stammered on and on and hadn’t even really introduced myself or given him my name! I was very happy when he told me that he knew my playing and was happy that I’d be coming to his studio to record. 

I recorded my “Japanese Songs” CD at Masuo’s studio on July 22, 1999- on my 44th birthday- with NY stalwart Earl Sauls on bass and the great Al Harewood on drums. I remember telling Al that I was feeling a bit old on my birthday and he told me to cut it out!- he’d turned 76 just the month before (and played like he was 26!). David Baker engineered and Katsuhiko Naito assisted and later handled the editing and mastering. From that date on, Naito-san has edited and mastered everything I’ve recorded. Why? Simply because he’s the best. 

I subsequently recorded my “The Music of Bud Powell” and “Tomorrow’s Hours: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery” at Masuo’s studio in 2000 and 2001, but on these occasions, Masuo himself engineered the sessions. 

In 2001 Masuo relocated to Pennsylvania (and then again in 2019 to LA). He wasn’t performing publicly too frequently but in 2011 that changed. It was the year of the Tohoku earthquake, or what is generally referred to in the US as “Fukushima”. On the day of the disaster, which occurred on the afternoon of March 11, Masuo happened to be in Tokyo recording with Chin Suzuki. And on that day more than 19,000 people died, and many hundreds of thousands lost their homes and became dislocated. Everyday life ground to an immediate halt in Japan.

Masuo went to Kansai (the area around Osaka, sometimes referred to as “the west side” of Japan as opposed to the Tokyo area or the “east side”) for a small tour not too long after the disaster and was deeply moved by the reaction of the audiences and the profound way people loved and seemed to need and be nourished by the music. He felt the special power of the music, something he’d forgotten- and it lit the fire in him again. For 20 years he hadn’t played that much, but now he came to realize that, “…being a jazz musician means you have to be with your own music 24 hours a day, you know, that’s the only way you can play this music, you know.” He decided to come back as a full time jazz musician and has been active leading his own groups and playing with others since. Masuo was back! 

Masuo came to Japan for a tour toward the end of March (2020). I’d arrived in Kyoto on March 1 and in both our cases, due to the corona epidemic, there was no going back to the US. Even through the ups and downs, the openings and closings which have occurred in Japan in the time of corona, Masuo’s been busy playing with his own band, MAGATAMA, as well as with others. I wrote that I’ve had three occasions to interact with Masuo, this most recent one- getting together for this interview on 4/13/21- being the third. It’s my hope that the next occasion will come before too too long. 

In the many years of my career as a jazz guitarist, having heard all the guitar greats (and having played with many), Masuo’s playing has a special place in my heart. He has attained what for me is the ultimate accomplishment in jazz- he’s developed his own voice, his own personal way of expressing himself. 

Masuo’s “111 Sullivan Street” from 1975

You can go to Masuo’s English language website- – for a complete listing of his recordings, many of which are available through the website. I highly recommend “Are You Happy Now”, an organ trio with Larry Goldings and drummer Lenny White which is a collection of exceptional originals. Also, and most notably for me, the first one of Masuo’s recordings which I bought so very many years ago, “111 Sullivan Street” (recorded in 1975) which features the Sonny Rollins band’s rhythm section plus some tracks by alto saxophonist Bob Mover as well as a priceless cover photo of Masuo with his wife who’d been married only about two years and are now closing in on a golden 50 year anniversary. Great record, great photo. Masuo and his wife look so happy on that cover, maybe they had an inkling about all the wonderful things that would be coming their way in the future? When Masuo looked at me when we met in Tokyo just a few weeks ago and told me, “I really feel like I finally came back to the place where I should be”, I saw a similarly joyful expression of a man enthusiastically looking forward to the limitless possibilities that lie ahead. 

Yes, three times interacting with Masuo- 1973, 1999, 2021. All memorable.

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