Lost In Time: A retrospective on Ryo Fukui’s ‘Scenery’

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 1:32pm

Thelonious Monk taught us the beauty of improvisation. Louis Armstrong helped us find fun in swing. Duke Ellington showed us the wonder and joy to be had with a big orchestra. Ryo Fukui had all the material to make a similar impression on the world of jazz with the modal masterpiece that is 1976’s Scenery, but among some of musics biggest injustices, the lack of a global stage for musicians of Fukui’s ilk is one of the most unfortunate. When listening to Scenery, it’s hard not to think about the countless other potential works of art that the Western musical zeitgeist has failed to account for.

Jazz’s liberating nature separates it from other genres of music. Artists are free to stitch together a variety of styles and sounds effortlessly, affording them a significant level of creativity and improvisation. In Scenery, Fukui provides listeners a refreshing take on some jazz classics, like “Willow Weep For Me,” “Autumn Leaves” and “I Want To Talk About You.” While he relies on the works of other musicians, he has an undoubtedly unique take on every song. His rework of “Autumn Leaves” contains an eclectic, soulful introduction before he breaks into the slow, subdued jazz standard. While “Autumn Leaves” is an oft-used piece for beginner jazz musicians to acquaint themselves with jazz harmony, Fukui still manages to create something original out of an otherwise rudimentary piece of music, adding an upbeat cadence and flair throughout the song. The drums are thunderous, but at the same time expertly restrained, and his keyboard has an air of both swing and finesse.

Even in his original arrangements, the giants of jazz piano are channeled through the sounds of Scenery. Fukui’s style is immediately reminiscent of Bill Evans, and his modality recalls to life the masterpieces of the John Coltrane Quartet. In the track “Early Summer,” his transition between chill melodies and slapping chord progressions culminates in a grand three minute solo, mirroring a lot of the grandiosity found in both Evans and Coltrane’s repertoire. Though Fukui remains calm in some arrangements, he switches gears on frenetic, seemingly improvised pieces like “Early Summer,” a fitting apex for the album.

While jazz in America was going through a crisis of identity and relevancy, Japan had an artist whose talent and adherence to the purity of the genre’s sound created some of the world’s best, and most unnoticed, works of art. Scenery is both an expert homage to jazz’s best, and a damning illustration of an artist whose talent can almost match the musicians he honors. Scenery fuses elements of modal, bop and cool jazz, creating an unbridled spirit of majesty and excitement. While even some of jazz’s most loyal patrons may have failed to survey Fukui’s work, it’s never too late to rediscover the mastery of Scenery.