Nobuki Takamen Interview: Firmly in the Moment

By: Matt Warnock

Photos courtesy of N. Takamen.

Jazz is an art form that lives in the moment. Musical ideas are created on the spot, melodies swirl around complex harmonies and everything is kept together with a pulsing rhythm that ranges from bombastic to sultry and seductive. Because of Jazz’s ability to be absolutely spontaneous, many fans believe that live albums are the only way to properly capture the moment when a band comes together to breathe life into their tunes. But, live albums are also some of the hardest to capture because of the risk involved whenever a high level of improvisation is being injected into the music.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, jazz guitarist Nobuki Takamen recently took to the stage to capture one set that would wind up being his newest record, Live at the Iridium. With an energetic feel, strong sense of melody and a command of his instrument and the genre, Takamen and his quartet are at their best throughout this captivating live performance.

Guitar International recently caught up with Nobuki Takamen to talk about his latest album, live versus studio recordings and his current gear.

Nobuki Takamen

Nobuki Takamen

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Matt Warnock: Why did you choose to record a live album for your latest release rather than a studio album?

Nobuki Takamen: I’ve released two previous studio albums on a Japanese label, What’s New Records. The first one was recorded in 2005 and the second in 2007. It’s been quite a long time since I recorded these albums and the arrangements have changed over the years. Some of them even have new sections and parts, so I’d been looking for an opportunity to record some of my tunes from these albums with the quartet you hear on the disc.

In 2009, pianist Hitoshi Kanda told me that he decided to go back to Japan for good. We went on tour together in Canada including the Montreal Jazz Festival. In Montreal, I did a solo gig on the first day and a gig with the quartet next day. I asked the sound man to record our performance at the festival. On my way back home from Montreal, I listened to the recording on the train and it sounded great.

Listening to this live recording gave me the idea of doing a live recording at The Iridium, which was the very last gig with Hitoshi in New York before he left the country. I only had about two weeks before the gig, so I immediately contacted Katsuhiko Naito who I think is the best engineer in the city and has done many live recordings in New York, including Russell Malone’s live album at The Jazz Standard, John Scofield’s live album at The Blue Note and countless others.

The thing was, we only had one 60 minute set. We were supposed to have two sets but the club had to book another show after our first set for some reason. Katsu and I went to the club to discuss the details and they told us that we basically had only 30 minutes to set up all the recording equipment before the set and 30 minutes to pack everything up after the set.

It would be impossible to make this live recording happen without Katsu’s help. That would have been great if we had had two sets, but I’m really happy with the result. Everyone played great and, needless to say, Katsu did an awesome job. So what you hear on the disc is exactly what happened at the club that evening.

The other reason, is simply because I love the live recordings of Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and John Coltrane, to name a few, and I wanted to make my own live album. I will keep doing live recordings in the future for sure.

Matt: You recorded all original compositions for this album. Do you feel that jazz artists need to write their own material to be relevant in today’s music scene?

Nobuki Takamen: I think it’s totally up to each musician. In fact, there are so many great jazz musicians who could play standards as their own tunes nowadays. I love the way Geoff Keezer played “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Peter Bernstein’s Monk album, the many great arrangements you hear on CD’s on the Criss Cross label and so on. But the thing is, they also write amazing tunes.

As a jazz musician, I think it’s really important for me to be great as a player, composer and arranger. If I’m playing an original tune, I’d like to write a good tune, hopefully a great one. If I’m playing a jazz standard or something like that, I’d like to come up with a great arrangement and then to play it great as well.

When you listen to the recordings by the greats, you hear Monk play “Sweet and Lovely” and “Ask Me Now” beautifully, the Jazz Messengers play “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “Ugetsu,” Coltrane plays “Body and Soul” and “26-2” and Hank Mobley plays “Remember” and “This I dig of you.” These tunes are all on the same albums of theirs. They were not only great players, but also great composers and arrangers at the same time. I would like to do the same.

There are also many other reasons why I write. I write to express myself musically. I write to pay respect to my favorite players. I write tunes that challenge me as a player. I write something I would enjoy playing with my group. But one of the main reasons why I write and play my tunes is because I’d like to be great as a player, composer and arranger, like I mentioned before.

Matt: The record features you in a quartet format. Why did you choose this ensemble for the record and do you prefer the trio over a quartet with horns or just guitar trio?

Nobuki Takamen: As much as I love guitar trio, quartet with horn and other formats, I love this format with guitar, piano, bass and drums, just like you hear on my favorite album, Wes Montgomery’s Incredible Jazz Guitar.

Recently, I’ve been playing with my guitar trio more often, but I’d been working with the quartet for a long time. They know my music very well and they are actually the ones who made my tunes grow musically. I also felt like what they played were integral parts of these tunes, just like specific parts and lines that Monk plays on his tunes. I think these parts are integral in his music and I love to have those in my tunes when I play with my group. I’m so happy to be able to play my music with these great musicians.

Matt: What guitar and amp are you using on the album and why did you choose to use these models?

Nobuki Takamen: I used my Gibson ES-335 ’63 reissue, which has been my primary axe for more than 10 years. As for the amp, I use Acoustic Image Clarus SL-R and Raezer’s Edge Stealth 12. I’ve been playing with this combination since 2006. The reason is, because these are the models that I always use for every performance, and I wanted to do the same for this live recording. I didn’t use any pedals for this recording session.

Matt: As a guitarist living in New York you’ve got an inside look at the heart of the jazz world. How is the jazz scene in New York these days, is it healthy or in a downturn?

Nobuki Takamen: I think it’s pretty healthy. Especially as for jazz guitar, I think now is one of the best eras ever in the history of jazz guitar. It’s like the renaissance of jazz guitar. There are so many great guitarists in New York like Gene Bertoncini, Russell Malone, Paul Bollenback, Mike Stern, Jack Wilkins, Ben Monder, Adam Rodgers, Steve Cardenas, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg, Peter Mazza, Peter Bernstein, Sheryl Bailey and Wayne Krantz.

I just can’t mention all of them but I’ve seen everyone I’m mentioning here. They all have their own distinctive style and concept of rhythm, harmony and melody. It’s definitely great to be able to be on the scene with these great players.

Matt: You play solo guitar gigs in New York. Have you ever thought of doing a solo guitar album for an upcoming project?

Nobuki Takamen: Yes, I have. I think it’s going to take long time before I do that. I have three CDs with my group and still have so many things I want to do with the group. I used to do solo gigs once in a while, but I seriously started doing more solo gigs after my solo guitar show at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2009.

Every time I listen to the CDs of George Van Eps, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Ted Greene, I feel like I have to work on my solo chops more. Although a solo guitar album project may take time, I’ll post some videos of my solo performances on my website and YouTube soon.

Matt: Now that you have a live album in the books, what are your plans for your next recording project?

Nobuki Takamen: I’m actually planning to record my fourth album right after I go on tour in Japan in this fall. I’m thinking of recording new compositions of mine as well as one or two solo guitar pieces. I may record some of my arrangements of jazz standards and Japanese traditional songs which I’ve been playing.

It all depends on my upcoming Japanese tour. I’ll get to play with the group every night, which is great because we can come up with new arrangements or I can come up with new compositions during the tour. I went on tour before I recorded my albums in the past. This worked amazingly, so I’ll do the same. The album is to be released on Summit Records, which is the same label as my third album.

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