Asuka Kakitani conquers the impossible task of representing nature in jazz


Reality is rarely compartmentalized into the rigid structure of a three-minute pop song. Recalling the full beauty of a painting or a landscape can’t be related without losing the finer details. Longer compositions, it seems, make for music that’s most representative of mother nature.

Japanese-born, Minnesota-based composer Asuka Kakitani was on the same page as me as soon as we began our conversation on the phone last month. “If I see this amazing picture of, say, Iceland or something, I feel like I want to write a story. Three-minute pieces are just too short to tell the story,” she says. This is jazz in a nutshell. Even though many famous compositions mirror the forms of popular music (rather, popular music mirrors the forms of jazz), the notes and phrasing on the page give a stronger impression than mere words. It’s a sentiment shared by many modern composers.

Kakitani’s chosen medium is big band, and how better to convey nature’s complexities than with a 20-person band? Unlike many prodigious jazzers, Kakitani wasn’t heading down this path from age 18 and on. True, she became infatuated with hard bebop around this age, but nevertheless toiled around different genres before landing at Berklee School of Music at age 26. In a biography on Kakitani’s website, I found a testimonial saying she had wanted to sound like Bud Powell during this period. She laughs when I repeat this: “I’d never heard anything like that! After hearing him, I really just wanted to be a jazz pianist.”

Things changed a bit when Kakitani took a harmony class, and had to compose an arrangement. She chose Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and put five horns to the task. “It just came naturally to me, and everything was so different.” I ask if what she’d done as an arranger was more rewarding than what she’d reached for as a pianist: “Composition makes me feel like I’m free to do what I want. I didn’t have to write like somebody or play like somebody else. It was so fun to create my own world.”

Fresh out of college, Kakitani was fortunate enough to find the perfect transitional experience, The BMI Jazz Workshop in New York. Here, she fine-tuned her current masterwork, 2013’s Bloom. It’s no simple task getting through all of its nuances (it’s 75 minutes, and took about 10 years to complete), but as we mentioned earlier, this isn’t the case with reality either. If Kakitani wants to relate the feeling she got when walking through her mother-in-law’s garden on “Bumblebee Garden,” it’s not going to be quick. There’s detail in the blooming flowers just as there’s a drama and movement in the horn performances. Do you see bees cropping out from all corners? That’s probably the pronounced bursts in the low brass. Do you focus on the way a particular plant climbs from the ground to eight feet tall? That’s probably the dynamic trombone solo featured in the middle of the track. When the vocals take over at the end of the solo, we’ve reached the delicate flowers at the end.

This is all extrapolation. But it’s also what I believe most people seek when absorbing complex music. They look for parallels to real life. They look for emotions. They look for beauty. Listening to Bloom, that’s exactly what you’ll find.

A less impressionistic moment on the record takes place during the highlight “Electric Images.” A muted bass solo plays one of the busiest melodies of the record, but manages to stay neatly tucked into the rest of the instrumentation. That’s a feat seldom replicated in the pop music world. As if it wasn’t already a rich enough passage, a piano takes over and continues to stay well within the forms of the track without overemphasizing the player’s talents.

“That one is a little different,” explains Kakitani of “Images.” “A bassist I knew in school said I write too many ostinato (repeating) phrases, and to give him something a little more difficult. The title was ‘exercise for electric bass’, and I wanted to include it in future compositions.” This teamwork is a mere fraction of what’s reflected on the record, and it’s no surprise that Kakitani holds her own while conducting so many different players.

Elsewhere on her website, I read that she’s most concerned with melody when composing a piece. At first, I was a little shocked that she had chosen this over rhythm. After all, a conductor works with percussionists whose job it is to stay in tempo. As it were, Kakitani’s reasoning for focusing on melody was irrefutable. “When I write, I try not to think too much. I sing. If I can’t sing it, I feel like it didn’t really come from me.” With this response, all my preconceived notions were put to bed. If the composition process begins with something this genuine, how could it be hindered by the minutiae of “correct” tempo?

Kakitani recently became a mother, which exacerbates finding time for composition. Fortunately, the Jerome Fund has put her in a position where she simply has to compose. Incidentally, her current work won’t be as dense as your average big band piece. Pairing up with St. Olaf percussionist Dave Hagedorn, Kakitani is working on pieces for marimba and other melodic percussion. Kakitani lives with her family in Northfield, MN, and Hagedorn also happens to be her neighbor. Writing in collaboration is difficult when sharing the same space as well as when you’re far apart. With Hagedorn just down the street, Kakitani has the best of both worlds. “I can just go to his place and just try out some stuff. I’ve never written for solo percussion. Suddenly, I’ve moved from composing for 18 people to composing for one.” I tell her that if the product will be as lovely as Bloom, she should take as much time as she needs.

So, what’s the big picture in Kakitani’s work? I ask if she tries to relate anything as simple as happiness or sadness. As it were, it’s even more basic and universal than that: “Memory,” she says. “When I like something very much, I want to document what I feel and see. It’s not a story I can tell with words, and perhaps that’s why I choose to tell it with music.” Why wouldn’t she use longform structures to accomplish these goals? They act as a canvas upon which listeners can impress their own feelings and experiences--the very things that create the memories Kakitani so boldly details. Not only is this process more reflective of the human truth everyone experiences, it’s a mirror through which we can observe this truth and all of the beauty behind it. Be it manifested via big band or by solo marimba, we’ll take what we can get.