Toshinori Kondo: Playing in Uncharted Territory

Toshinori Kondo: Playing in Uncharted Territory

Written by Anne E. Johnson

There’s a lot more to jazz than late nights on a club stage reading standards charts. Experimental trumpeter Toshinori Kondo sought to expand the definition of jazz to include the most creative and untethered elements of the musical mind. It might be more accurate to say that Kondo played without any regard to genre, and the world tried to fit him into a category.

Born on the Japanese island of Shikoku in 1948, Kondo started playing trumpet in his school band at the age of 12. His major at the University of Kyoto was mechanical engineering, but a fateful friendship with percussionist Tsuchitori Toshiyuki changed his plans for the future. Jazz took over his life, and very quickly he was drawn to its more outré community, thanks to free-jazz pioneer pianist Yosuke Yamashita.

In 1978, Kondo moved to New York, and for the much of his life used that city and Amsterdam as his bases of operation. These locations let him build long-term collaborations with cutting-edge artists. In Europe it was the likes of saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, with whom he founded the free-improvisation group Die Like a Dog, and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. In New York he worked with composer John Zorn, bassist Bill Laswell, and others. He also started his own group, Toshinori Kondo IMA (short for International Music Activities), and famously spearheaded a project with DJ Krush to explore a then-new sub-genre known as trip-hop.

When Kondo died in October 2020 at the age of 71, NPR’s Nate Chinen called him a “sonic chameleon,” which is an apt assessment. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Toshinori Kondo.


  1. Track: “H”
    Album: Moose and Salmon
    Label: Music Gallery Editions
    Year: 1978

This album’s record label alone is worth learning about: Music Gallery Editions was a short-lived enterprise in Toronto (hence the Canada-intensive album title) run by artists and focusing on the avant-garde. Moose and Salmon certainly fits right in with that mandate.

All the tunes have letter names as titles: A-K, but they are not in alphabetical order, J is missing, and there are three tracks called “B.” Kondo plays trumpet and alto horn; Henry Kaiser, a frequent Kondo collaborator, plays guitar; John Osborne is on alto sax. The 10-minute “H” opens with what sounds like springs and squeaky toys, but it’s actually the three instrumentalists using so-called “extended” techniques: sliding objects along the guitar strings without plucking, drumming on the trumpet’s brass tubing, etc. There’s also some non-articulate vocalizing. By around 3:00, you’ll start to hear the horns being played, evoking elephants and tropical birds.


  1. Track: “Improvisation 102d”
    Album: Protocol
    Label: Metalanguage
    Year: 1979

Kaiser joins Kondo for guitar and trumpet duets on the first half of this album. The second half is Kaiser with drummer Andrea Centazzo, who has since built a career as a composer.

“Improvisation 102d” explores the trumpet mouthpiece as percussion instrument. Kondo buzzes and tightens his lips, releases air in quick little bursts, and then almost starts a melody but lets it become a pattern of inexact pitches instead. The timbre of Kaiser’s electric guitar sounds like an outgrowth of this alien trumpet.


  1. Track: “Artless Sky”
    Album: Artless Sky
    Label: CAW Records
    Year: 1980

The trio here is Kondo along with a British duo act consisting of John Russell on guitar and Roger Turner on drums. Both were, and still are, specialists in free improvisation. This album was made by Russell and Turner’s own label, CAW Records (not to be confused with Caw Records, no matter what Discogs claims).

The opener is the 23-minute “Artless Sky.” After the pitchless percussiveness of the first two minutes, Kondo begins a wild range of pitched sounds, angry and searching. As his melodic arcs devolve again into rhythmic chatter, Russell strums chord-like tone clusters. Russell rumbles and ticks in answer.


  1. Track: “Tea Girl”
    Album: Metal Position
    Label: Polydor
    Year: 1985

Not surprisingly, Kondo’s extremely unconventional style was a hard sell for major labels. The work of his ensemble, Toshinori Kondo IMA, was another matter. While still experimental, it has one foot in the world of jazz fusion, with a heaping spoonful of synth pop. “This,” thought record executives, “we can sell.”

The electronic energy of “Tea Girl” demonstrates the influence of Herbie Hancock on Kondo’s music. The two men became friends in Japan and eventually worked together.


  1. Track: “La Strada”
    Album: This, That and the Other
    Label: ITM Records
    Year: 1987

For This, That and the Other, Kondo worked in the studio with Tristan Honsinger, an American free-jazz cellist best known for his collaborations with pianist Cecil Taylor. Other musicians on hand included Sean Bergin on saxophone and melodica and Michael Moore on clarinet.

Here’s the complete album, which starts with a hilarious spoken counterpoint of all the personnel telling mundane stories simultaneously in their native tongues. That’s followed at the 1:27 mark by “La Strada,” a fascinating confluence of free jazz and the highly organized sound of big-band swing.


  1. Track: “Love Stone”
    Album: Touchstone
    Label: Moon Records
    Year: 1995

Back in the realm of free and pure improvisation, Kondo made the experimental album Touchstone while in Japan. It’s a far cry from the breathless, percussive jams of his earlier years. The track titles have an elemental quality: “Love Stone, “Beat Stone,” “Doom Stone,” “Water Stone,” “Talk Stone,” “Dream Stone.”

For all its electronic sound manipulation, these arrangements evoke nothing so much as ancient Asia. At first, the trumpet on “Love Stone” might be mistaken for a shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo end-blown flute), and the synthesizer seems to sweep over the landscapes of time.


  1. Track: “Sun Is Shining”
    Album: Ki-Oku
    Label: Sony
    Year: 1996

Trip-hop combines fusion, electronica, dub, hip-hop, and other genres. The ever-curious Kondo became interested in this sound and collaborated on this album with Japanese mix master DJ Krush, famed for creating atmospherics out of samples by jazz and soul artists. Appropriately, his style is sometimes referred to as Future Jazz.

The album title, Ki-Oku, means “remembrance.” On top of the delicate yet funky bass foundation of “Sun Is Shining,” Kondo lays a shimmering, soulful solo. It’s clear from his playing here that, if he’d been so inclined, he could surely have been very successful as a trumpeter in more conventional jazz; that was not his calling.


  1. Track: Untitled
    Album: Fear No Fall
    Label: Lowlands
    Year: 1998

As esoteric as his work may sound, Kondo never had any trouble finding fellow musicians willing to share in his experiments, not to mention audiences thrilled to witness them. The album Fear No Fall captures one such study, carried out at the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven, Belgium, in 1997.

Kondo and five other musicians met to improvise in a variety of duos and trios, and some of the results are presented on this album. Track 4, found at the 21:22 mark on this video, features Kondo with Belgian drummer Dirk Wachtalaer. The sounds they create seem three-dimensional and are beautifully terrifying.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Schorie.


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