Monday, June 6, 2011

Steve and Watazumi

Time for another post at least partially about Steve Lacy, one of my musical heroes.

Steve Lacy had a special relationship with Japan. He made twelve concert tours of the country between 1975 to 2000, and a thirteenth tour was planned for June, 2004. That tour never happened; Lacy died on June 4th. Lacy's playing, spare and deliberate, seemed tailored for Japanese culture and attitudes, and he had a strong affinity with Japanese musicians, especially the great percussionist Masahiko Togashi, with whom he recorded many times.

Lacy's Japanese tours gave him the opportunity to directly experience the culture that had fascinated him for so long. He was deeply interested in Zen and Taoism (his Tao Suite was a cornerstone of his concerts from 1970). And on a couple of his trips, he took advantage of the opportunity to study with Watazumi Doso.

Watazumi Doso (海童 道祖 老師) (1910-1992) was a flutist and teacher of his own sect of Buddhism, Watazumido, or "The Way of Watazumi." Watazumi was a somewhat mysterious figure, down to the elusive matter of his name. He seemed to be known as Itcho Human and/or Tanaka Masaru in his younger days; later, Roshi, or "Master" was appended to his name. He was also sometimes known as Watazumido Shuso, which means something like "Head Student of the Way of Watazumi."

Watazumi did not consider himself a musician as much as a Buddhist teacher and practitioner. He exercised daily with the Jo stick, a long hardwood pole, and stressed the importance of breathing to his students. Here is an excerpt from a lecture he gave at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, in 1981 (translation by Chris Jay):

It's fine that you are all deep into music. But there's something deeper and if you would go deeper, if you go to the source of where the music is being made, you'll find something even more interesting. At the source, everyone's individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it's your own life and it's knowing your own life, that own way that you live.

Watazumi played a variety of bamboo flutes known as hocchiku or hotchiku. They differ from the more familiar shakuhachi flute in that the bore is unlacquered and left in as natural state as possible. Hocchiku flutes are usually longer and heavier than shakuhachi, and the sound they produce is rawer and less tempered.

Steve Lacy called Watazumi "one of the greatest improvisers I've ever heard in my life, maybe the greatest." Watazumi's music is certainly more startling, even avant-garde, than a passing familiarity with Japanese shakuhacki music would lead one to expect. It's full of sudden changes of timbre and volume, as well as notes which don't fit into any scale, Western or Eastern.

Lacy visited Watazumi during that first tour of Japan in 1975 for a lesson. He returned for another lesson ten years later, and, as he said, "I had made a lot of progress!"

What did he learn from Watazumi? In a 1997 Fresh Air interview with Terri Gross, Lacy explained the lesson that he describes as a revelation: "That my own voice was my own ear was my own breath was my own sound; that it was all one - the conception that it's just one thing." Lacy's later music, from the last two decades of his life, provides plenty of evidence of lessons learned. His purity of tone is perfectly matched to the composed material and to the melodic conception of his improvisations.

Recordings of Watazumi Doso are difficult to find. The most accessible, at least in the United States, seems to be an LP with the somewhat unfortunate title The Mysterious Sounds of the Japanese Bamboo Flute, which was issued by Everest in the late 1960's. Here is as example of his playing from that album. (I didn't post the video.)

I'll leave the last word on Watazumi to Steve Lacy. "He was the most modern improviser I've ever heard in my life. He surpassed anybody I could think of, including Braxton, or Derek Bailey. Doso, to me, was just... whew, outside all of that, really."

Steve Lacy quotes are from Fresh Air, November 20, 1997 and The Wire, November, 2002.