One might think that a bubbly Japanese pianist would be an anomaly in the land of tall and moody blonds, but it wasn’t until Naoko Sakata moved to Sweden that she truly felt at home.
“I was always an outsider in Japan,” she reveals, interviewed by phone from the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society’s Mount Pleasant offices. “I played in Japan a little bit—three years or four years or something—after my graduation from music school, but I had always a very hard time because many people thought I didn’t play jazz. They wanted me to play more like bebop, or more like American jazz—more like very traditional jazz. But I really liked to listen to [Swedish pianist] Bobo Stenson and Nordic jazz, and I felt very near to them. I felt like what I wanted to do was very close to them, and I couldn’t find anyone who played like that in Japan. I felt so lonely that I thought, ‘Maybe if I go to Sweden I’m going to find many more friends. Maybe I can find someone I can play with.’ I was always a strange person when I was in Japan, so I wanted to find some people who didn’t think I was strange.”
As documented on the Naoko Sakata Trio’s 2013 release Flower Clouds, the 31-year-old musician was successful in her quest. Joined by a Stockholm-based rhythm section, she delivered a record of consistent and only slightly strange beauty, marked by the kind of grey-skies melancholy that has been a hallmark of Scandinavian jazz since its inception. A similar sense of calm expansiveness also characterizes Vancouver jazz, and it’s likely that Sakata—here on a monthlong residency arranged through CJBS and the Swedish equivalent of the Canada Council—will win more friends when she makes her local debut in the company of bassist André Lachance and drummer Dan Gaucher.
Sakata’s Canadian visit is especially appropriate in that her favourite pianist—other than Stenson, of course—is Montreal-born Paul Bley. Her style could be said to combine aspects of the former’s lyrical right hand and the latter’s percussive left—an assessment she doesn’t deny, noting, “Both are so strong!” But an even older influence comes into play in her ability to blur the lines between composition and improvisation on impressionistic numbers such as Flower Clouds’ “Mane” and “Snow Covered the Machine Field”.
“My mother is a piano teacher, so I started when I was three or something,” she says, adding that her childhood was set to the sounds of Fréd-éric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy. “I was very good at listening, and I could imitate sounds immediately. But my mother didn’t like that so much, because I’d just listen to the pitch and imitate it. My technique was strange, and my fingering was strange, and I couldn’t read the sheet music, so she was kind of always mad at me.”
That’s changed, however. “I think she’s happy now that I’ve found jazz, so I don’t need the sheet music and I can do whatever I want to,” Sakata adds, laughing. “It was so difficult for me to play classical music, because I always had to play what it said and I couldn’t do that so good. But she’s very happy now.”
The Naoko Sakata Trio plays the Western Front next Thursday (October 9).