Think of life as music and the mutual attraction between a musician like Bob James and Japanese music lovers is crystal clear. The fusion master's visit last fall to the tsunami-devastated northeastern Tohoku region was one of more than 30 trips he has made to Japan spanning a long career. Struggling to understand what the people there were coping with, the two-time Grammy winner was inspired to write a song. The experience was cathartic, both for James and for those who got to see him perform at the third annual Iwate Jazz festival in the prefectural capital, Morioka.
Landing in this small northern city in September 2011, James wasted no time joining in local traditions, both ancient and modern, attending an autumn festival at the local Shinto shrine, Hachiman Jingu, and hitting the jazz scene at night for an impromptu performance, to the delight of local patrons. James added his signature to the wall of Club Basie, joining the many jazz greats drawn to this musical outpost in the Pacific. In fact, the Count Basie Orchestra had just swung through southern Iwate to perform at the historic Motsuji Temple, a United Nations World Heritage site, part of a series of concerts throughout the region. All this jazz medicine was working its magic on a population still terrorized by memories of the giant tsunami, and grieving deeply.
Looking up close at the dust and rubble remains of a community obliterated by the tsunami in the coastal town of Ofunato, James struggled to find words to express his shock at the force of nature and the monumental task of rebuilding. The old clubhouse belonging to Ofunato's amateur jazz orchestra, the Sandpipers, was still standing among the ruins. James ventured in.
Miraculously all the band members had survived and were back at practice. Bandleader Hidehiko Suzuki said the little prefab structure had been completely submerged, the watermarks still evident on the rafters. He said they'd given up hope. Trumpeter and composer for the band Mitsuya Yoshida said he had lost everything in the deluge, but found strength in an old saying, "flowers can bloom from dead wood."
Using a toy piano, he composed a new song for the Sandpipers. Similarly, James found his new melody in the strange feeling of trying to make sense of the destruction. He had dedicated the song, Put Your Hearts Together (now known as Put Our Heats Together,) to the people of Iwate prefecture, and the Sandpipers would play it with him as the finale to his concert in Morioka. Just meeting the jazz master was already the experience of a lifetime for the Sandpipers. Now they were practicing an original score for its premiere performance. It was something out of this world, a silver lining in the clouds.
People came from all over the region to the music hall in Morioka for the performance. The Sandpipers marveled at the acoustics. They had never played in such a big hall before. Lights out and the curtain rose on the full piece orchestra warming up the audience for the celebrated jazz violinist Naoko Terai, followed by the mesmerizing piano of Keiko Matsui, and then, an evening of James. In Look for the Silver Lining, James rolled out a message of hope. His duet with Matsui on Put Your Hearts Together displayed the perfect unity of a long collaboration. The audience bubbled with emotion when the curtain rose on the Sandpipers for the finale. Then they were clapping and rising to their feet. With only two days' practice, the little orchestra from Ofunato had shed its amateur skin to deliver a sharp and rousing backup. The three frontline performers could barely contain their delight.
Audience members trailed out of the hall, their faces beaming. There would be no sleep tonight. At the post-concert party the band members rehashed their performance and all they had been through. James felt their emotion and struggled to contain his own. The drinks and tears flowed. But they were tears of happiness and thanks. It was a good night to remember, and it had given them the strength to move on.