Pat Metheny does 12 shows in Tokyo, the “backbone of jazz”

Japan audiences well-trained to appreciate the world’s greatest living guitarist

by Christopher Johnson

When I began writing feature stories about music for the Japan Times and other dailies and magazines in the mid-90s, there was a sense among expats that Japan was a musical backwater, a “straight-jacket society” eternally behind the times, unable to produce anything original. Relatively unknown bands I discovered then — Blankey Jet City, Boredoms, Super Junky Monkey — would become pioneers of their genres, inspiring legions of musicians who benefited from the explosion of rock festivals, raves and indie media in Japan.

Almost two decades later, Japan can rightfully claim to be a heavyweight of the music world. Festivals routinely sell out here, even at 16,000 yen per day ticket. Guitarist Pat Metheny, who knows something about music (he just won his 20th Grammy), has even called Japan the “backbone” of the global jazz scene.

Japanese are crazy abut music. They love playing it, and they’ll travel long distances and play high prices to hear it.

This trend is most evident when discussing Metheny, who is perhaps the greatest living guitarist.  During his current world tour, Metheny played only one show each in London (The Barbican), New York City (The Town Hall) and Austin, among others.

But come to Japan, Metheny is playing no less than 12 shows at the Blue Note, and six have sold out early, at 12,000 yen a ticket.

This isn’t only in jazz. Kevin Shields, the reclusive leader of 1990s shoegazer pioneers My Bloody Valentine, recently told me backstage that his band barely gets any attention in Europe. But come to Japan, and they sell out a weeks-worth of gigs.

Why does sophisticated music — based on technical virtuosity — succeed in Japan more than other countries?

Metheny and others have pointed to Japan’s education system, which encourages students to play music at school, resulting in a nation teeming with musicians. Walk through any neighborhood in Japan after school and you’ll see kids carrying instruments. Many train stations in the greater Tokyo area, for example, are near a rehearsal studio of some sort. Ask your office colleagues if they play music, and chances are they’ll have a keyboard, guitar, violin or other instrument at home.

But in America, meanwhile, Metheny has noted how the Reagan revolution in the 1980s led to the dumbing down of American education, producing a generation not trained to appreciate the virtuosity and complexity of jazz, which was long known as America’s indigenous form of classical music.

Thus Metheny and other virtuosos can’t wait to come to Japan. Eric Clapton and others have noted how Japanese audiences tend to listen very carefully, appreciating the nuances lost on audiences elsewhere. That’s because many in the audience are skilled musicians themselves, and they are very good at listening.

For more info on seeing Pat Metheny, contact Blue Note at http://www.bluenote.co.jp/jp/artists/pat-metheny/

or go to the official Pat Metheny website: http://www.patmetheny.com/tours.cfm

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