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Dave Iwataki: Jazzing It Up

“Music is emotion,” says Dave Iwataki.

“My strongest, early influence was Herbie Hancock,” the veteran arranger/composer/keyboardist notes. “I aspired to play, write and evolve like him. I felt he had the gift for putting true emotion into music.”

For Iwataki, who has collaborated with major artists such as Peabo Bryson, Barry Manilow, Kenny G, The Pointer Sisters, Tom Scott, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Olivia Newton-John, Paul Anka, and The Fifth Dimension, music is also culture.

As an early member of the iconic jazz group Hiroshima, Iwataki broke new ground in cross-cultural contemporary music. While enjoyed by mainstream audiences, his work was shaped by deeply personal forces of his Asian heritage.

“In the days of the Black Movement and the Brown Movement, there was James Brown. ‘Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud!’” Iwataki says. “African Americans had R&B and jazz, the Latinos had salsa. I wanted that, too, for the Japanese Americans! So I was thrilled when asked to join Hiroshima. I would have a chance to work with traditional Japanese instruments, the koto and taiko.”

Japanese and Japanese American influences have permeated Iwataki’s career. A versatile artist, he has worked in many areas of music performance and production, from live concert performances to composing and arranging for record, radio, stage, television and film.

Iwataki composed the scores for the Japanese American National Museum’s documentaries Harsh Canvas: The Art & Life of Henry Sugimoto; Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Grey; and Words, Weavings and Songs. The scores for Harsh Canvas and Infinite Shades of Grey were subsequently released on CD and incorporated an eclectic mix of musical styles including jazz, contemporary chamber music, and even a tango.

“For Harsh Canvas, (director) John Esaki asked me to evoke New York for the opening sequence—cool, vibrant, edgy,” Iwataki recalls. “Miles Davis exemplifies New York to me, and so I approached that scene with his quartet in mind. For the Toyo Miyatake film, (director) Bob Nakamura said, ‘This is an art film. Take it where you want.’ What liberating words! I was free to create any type of music I wanted. I think I grew creatively from having worked on that film.”

“Being able to pop in a musical idea from one genre into a work of a different style kind of keeps things fresh,” says Iwataki.

In the CD, Barbed Wire & Hip-Hop, Iwataki provocatively fused elements of the past and present—setting World War II-era stories against a modern urban beat. “At first, I didn’t like hip hop," Iwataki says. “But after listening to a lot of different artists I realized that the beats that give hip hop its distinctive sound are actually like a canvas to paint on with orchestral music or voices of former Japanese American internees.”

Iwataki’s newest work, J-Town/Bronzeville Suite, funded by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, is an homage to Los Angeles’ historic Little Tokyo district. Little Tokyo (“J-Town”) was also known as “Bronzeville” during World War II because of a number of African Americans who lived there while the Japanese Americans were away in wartime concentration camps.

“I first became aware of Bronzeville through a Toyo Miyatake photograph,” Iwataki says. “I was intrigued by this place I never heard of, which existed in a place I thought I knew well. For the first movement I’m writing several pieces for koto and shakuhachi [Japanese flute] to evoke Little Tokyo, pre-war. The second movement is all jazz, to recall the ‘after hours’ jazz clubs that existed in the Bronzeville age. The koto and shakuhachi return in the third movement to join the jazz band, tentatively and sometimes discordantly at first, then, eventually in warm harmony together. Maybe the ideal, if not the real.”

“This will be my first time working with Hiromi Hashibe, kotoist with the group Kokin Gumi, and I’m very excited,” Iwataki enthuses. “And I always enjoy working with Masakazu Yoshizawa. I hope people will continue to support the few remaining ‘J-Towns’ where Japanese Americans derived their strength and developed their wings.”

“I also view J-Town/Bronzeville Suite as another opportunity to broaden the definition of ‘Japanese American’ music,” says Iwataki, emphasizing that experimentation is vital.

“I become restless if I stay on one thing for too long,” Iwataki adds. But he notes that while his continually evolving repertoire includes Latin/Brazilian music, salsa, funk and R& B, it’s jazz that often brings him back to the heart of his inspiration.

“At home, I love to play jazz ballads because I can fool around with re-harmonizing the melodies,” says Iwataki. “That helps me pull out the different emotions. And for me, emotions are what music has always been about.”

May 2006



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