Jazz flowed across the Pacific not as the freedom cry of the oppressed, but as American cultural propaganda and GI pastime during the Cold War. The Japanese were especially enamored with America’s classical music, and has enriched jazz with their unrivaled craftsmanship. Jazz has even shaped their national writer Haruki Murakami, who ran a dinky jazz bar called “Peter Cat” in Tokyo for seven years. Jazz musicians have been called cats since the swinging ’20s, and here are my nine favorite cats from Asia. Please excuse the quality of some of these videos, as I’ve given preferences to gritty live performances over immaculate studio recordings.
Hiromi Uehara: Pachelbel’s Canon
This song is etched into Asian consciousness as many Asian kids learn it on the piano. It was also the theme song of the blockbuster 2001 Korean romcom “My sassy girl” that colored my childhood conception of love. Virtuosic Japanese pianist Hiromi really opens up the piece with each round of improvisation.
Norah Jones: Let it Ride
Lest you think Norah is not Asian, she was born Norah Shankar, as the daughter of the legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar. And lest you think she only sings picturesque ballads like “Come away with me”, she can be edgier as demonstrated here. Accompanying her on the keys is the Grammy-winning Robert Glasper.
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra: Sayonara Hotel
“Sayonara” means goodbye in Japanese, and this song sublimates usually maudlin Asian farewell into an upbeat one. Ska originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s by melding calypso with jazz, and it sired reggae. Formed before in the 1980s before I was born, this band “Skapara” as abbreviated by fans is still going strong.
Nah Youn Sun: Dancing with you
This experimental Korean singer is based in Paris, but she sang the Korean folk song “Arirang” at the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Her voice ranges from bestial to cherubic, and this song is one of the tamest of her oeuvre.
Yo-Yo Ma: “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues)
If you only know Yo-Yo as a classical maestro, you’re missing out. This Harvard anthropology grad knows no borders, and his Silk Road Ensemble with Asian musicians is also worth a listen. It was hard to pick a song for this globe-trotting cellist, but Brazil wins in the end.
Lang Lang: Tico Tico
The emperor of classical music lords over many genres, and the Chinese pianist has even recorded a song of filial piety titled “Father” with the Korean superstar Psy. Tico Tico was part of the soundtrack for the Brazil World Cup, and Lang Lang collaborates with Bebel Gilberto the queen of Bossa Nova the lovechild of jazz and samba.
Joey Alexander: Round Midnight
This 14-year-old prodigy from rural Indonesia is the Mozart of Jazz. He released his first album “My favorite Things” aged 11, and has performed for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. His daring interpretation of pianist Thelonius Monk’s bebop classic exudes vim and vigor.
Zakir Hussain: Cadence
I’ve dabbled with the Indian percussion tabla and it’s no joke. Although Zakir was initially trained as a classical tabla player, his freewheeling improvisation has landed him in the pantheon of jazz. He jams with genre-bending banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer here.
DJ Okawari: Luv Letter
Japanese skater Daisuke Takahashi danced to this piano piece at the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships. Okawari is an eclectic DJ who blends instrumental hip hop with nu jazz. With these Ghibli-esque vibes, you can warm up for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.