Haruka Kikuchi, energetically driving a band along or playing gently and lyrically, is currently one of the world’s best traditional jazz trombonists. She grew up in Japan and graduated in Music Science at Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 2010. Inspired by Kid Ory, she fell in love with traditional jazz.
In 2014, Haruka made the bold move of emigrating to New Orleans. She was soon in demand and playing with such bands as Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers and The Swamp Donkeys. Today, through her playing with The Shotgun Jazz Band and The Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band, she has become an international favourite. Her diary – up to the moment of the Coronavirus lock-down, was full.
Haruka married fellow Japanese musician the superb pianist Yoshitaka Tsuji; and they have a cute little son, Shouta, who has appeared with Haruka in videos – even on last year’s European tour.
Haruka wanted to link Japan with New Orleans in a project to inspire the next generation. So, whenever Japanese players visited New Orleans, she invited them into a recording studio to play music with her new friends. Over four years, she arranged 10 such sessions. Thirty-eight different musicians took part. They included Naho Ishimura, Shingo Kano, Makiko Tamura and Tomomitsu Maruyama from Japan and locals such as Molly Reeves, Gerald French, Twerk Thomson and David Boeddinghaus.
This year, Haruka has put together a CD anthology drawn from those sessions. It is called ‘Japan: New Orleans Collection Series’.
There are eleven tunes on the CD. I don’t know which studio Haruka uses but I can tell you the recording and sound quality are first-class. You can enjoy the full tone of every instrument with great clarity.
Here are some of the highlights. On ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’ we have witty, fluent double-chorus solos from Naho Ishimura, and Haruka herself, with Gerald French providing a vocal. ‘By and By’, which features fine playing from Haruka’s husband, Yoshitaka, is played by a quintet including both piano and organ. It begins with a slow church-style organ solo before a stomping treatment of the song. Haruka is at her lyrical best in ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’, which she performs with only a piano and string bass in support.
You may agree with me that the loveliest track is ‘Give It Up’, which shows you need only get four great players together and magic results. Makiko Tamura is on clarinet, Molly Reeves on guitar and Joshua Gouzy on bass. Need I say more?
The sextet playing ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues’ includes three trombones and there is no vocal. In both these respects the atmospheric interpretation, with liberal use of trombone mutes, is refreshing.
You would hardly expect ‘The Mooche’ to work well when played by a mere quartet of guitar, bass, trombone and piano. But, with a dramatic arrangement and the trombone carrying most of the melody, Hideki Kon, Nobu Ozaki and Haruka, joined by Larry Scala, pull it off. You would think the tune had been written for them.
Kevin Louis is on trumpet in an all-star quintet playing the ‘Gettysburg March’, which – delightfully and traditionally – the group runs through first in 6/8 time before breaking into a swinging 4/4. Junji Kimura shows his skills on percussion.
‘Mama Inez’ is the only number to feature a saxophone. Its player is Yasuki Sogabe; and very fine he is too, with piano, bass and drums providing the excellent rhythmic support this song requires.
It was brave for a quartet to undertake ‘High Society’. But with Kensuke Shintani on clarinet, Haruka knew it would sparkle. David Boeddinghaus on piano and Tom Saunders on tuba give just the right support.
‘Lonesome Road’ features the banjo-player Tomomitsu Maruyama, whose work we have admired in YouTube videos from Tokyo. They take it at a gentle tempo in the key of F, with Tomomitsu also offering the vocal.
The final number - ‘Indian Red’ - features a seven-piece group, successfully plunging four Japanese musicians into a stereotypical piece of Louisiana culture. Quite an achievement! My guess is that Haruka is specially proud of that.
I strongly recommend this unique anthology. It is available from The Louisiana Music Factory.