Hometown: Upstate New York, USA
In Japan: 9 years
Identity: Jazz musician
“I like to get people’s emotions growing – that’s what happens to me when I start playing,” says Quin Arbeitman, a regular performer on the Fukuoka jazz scene. Piano is his instrument of choice, although he also sings and plays breath powered keyboards such as the melodica and the Andes, a unique soprano instrument invented in Japan. Since moving south from Tokyo four years ago, his memorable experiences of Fukuoka so far include forming the jazz unit Arbeitman and Salaryman, the occasional foray into funk with the band Funky Oka, and annual all-night jam sessions before the Yamakasa festival in Hakata. He runs a monthly event at the Riverside club, the ‘Oishii Jam Session’, for anyone interested in playing jazz in a social setting. There, free samples of real jam are served up alongside delicious jazz licks. Quin is currently preparing a collection of original compositions for his solo show on January 28 at New Combo, and perfecting some favourite love songs for a special appearance at the Fukuoka Now Valentine’s Party, Feb. 14 at Hotel With the Style.
Hi, Quin. How long have you been playing jazz?
I started playing piano when I was 12. I played clarinet before that, but I got into jazz when I was a teenager because you don’t have to practice in the same way as classical, where you always have to get it just right. I loved the feeling of playing music, so jazz seemed to suit me. I had some really encouraging teachers, but had a really hard-case one in my first year of university. I got really discouraged and actually quit music and tried different things for a while. I only came back to music seriously about five years ago, but I’m glad I did.
How many instruments do you play?
I’m mainly a piano player. I played tuba and clarinet in high school so I could probably get them back but not at a professional level, and I sing too. There are a few different piano instruments that I like to play, like the melodica, a fun little instrument with the high reedy tone of a harmonica and the flexibility of an accordion, which is mainly used in education. I’m quite in love with a little keyboard called the Suzuki Andes, which is kind of like a tiny mouth blown organ, 25 recorder pipes all in a row corresponding to a different piano key. Sometimes piano players can get very cerebral because they’re not breathing. When you breathe into an instrument, you’re kind of giving your life into it.
What can we expect from your appearance at the Fukuoka Now Valentine’s Party?
There’s a Japanese word, moriageru, which means the emotions grow up – I like to get people’s emotions growing, because that’s what happens with me when I start playing. For the show on Valentine’s day, I’ll be with three horns and a hot rhythm section, doing my arrangements of classic love songs. I hope our music can help people make a love connection – you never know!
Why did you come to Fukuoka?
Before Japan, I was in London for three years at theatre school. I met a really nice Japanese girl there and came to Tokyo to try things out with her. Things didn’t work out, but I still loved the country and decided to stay. All my friends in Tokyo spoke English, so I came to Fukuoka for a change of scenery and to improve my Japanese. I’ve been living here for 4 years now.
Tell us about the jazz scene in Fukuoka.
There are a few main clubs which everyone should check out if they like jazz, like New Combo, Riverside and Backstage, as well as a few small, charming bars like Jump House, Trombone Club, and Space Terra. Tokyo is where everyone goes when they’re young and hot, so that’s where you find the world-class stuff, but we’ve got some really wonderful older musicians in Fukuoka who I love to see play. Every year, there’s a late Dontaku festival session at Riverside. We also jam all night before the Yamakasa race, then go and watch it in the morning. You come home and see little sparkles in the air, probably purely from sleep deprivation, but it’s magical.
What is your current involvement in the scene?
I’m not playing as much as I usually do at the moment, as I’m preparing for a special show on January 28th at New Combo. I feel like I’m a decent player. I feel things myself at least and that’s a good sign. I can’t speak for the audience, of course! I’d like to become stronger at the technique side of things. This is my own ‘happyokai’, the day when Japanese students show stuff to their parents, and the idea is to jump-start my technique to improve my level. The show is actually called ‘Happy Yokai’, as ‘yokai’ is a sort of little monster – ‘happy monsters’. I’m recording the show which is a challenge, I think a lot of people make CDs too early but I hope to make a good one the first time round.
What’s your favorite song from your own material?
Probably the best song I’ve written in Fukuoka came from just walking down a street called Shoninbashi-dori and humming to myself. I thought, ‘hey, that’s kind of catchy – I gotta write that down!’ It’s called “When You’re Not Looking”. It’s got two lines and when one line is doing something the other’s not looking. It’s a very simple, innocent melody that only comes from not thinking too hard.
How would you describe your style?
I believe the best way to practice is not to try to do it all at once, but to really tighten up those sub-routines, like just the left-hand bass line, or concentrating on improvising a melody which sings. Then once you’ve disassembled everything, start putting it together – superhero robots like Astro Boy are built piece by piece!
Do you use jazz standards when you play?
My tentative plan at the moment for my own show is to only play original material, but standards are wonderful because you live with them for years. When you learn to play them better, you’re using them as a shell to fill with yourself and it’s not them that are changing over time, but you. I don’t think I have a favorite, but the first popular standards I learnt were “Stella by Starlight” and “All the Things You Are”, which are both lovely and seem simple, but there is something a little unusual about them.
How is it being a foreigner playing jazz in the city?
There are only a couple of regular international players here. I’ve improved my Japanese a lot over the last four years and I really feel like a member of the community now. I host a jam session every month at Riverside, called the ‘Oishii Jam Session’. We actually serve free jam with bread to anyone who comes. It’s only 1,000 yen and it’s usually on the 14th of the month. In the past jazz jams used to be called cutting sessions, like a samurai battle – only one will stand. It can be a motivational force, like when Charlie Parker famously didn’t play so well, and one of the drummers threw a cymbal at the floor. He didn’t play in public for two years, practiced in his mum’s house and became an amazing jazz monster. The jazz scene in Fukuoka is much friendlier! I’d like to invite anyone who played a little jazz sax or whatever in high school. I’ll make sure you are taken care of in English if you don’t speak Japanese. I do private lessons too!
What are the differences between playing jazz here and in America?
I’ve learned a lot from other musicians here, but the classic stereotypical problem for Japanese musicians, especially in jazz, is that they’re too concerned about being correct. This is true these days to a certain extent in America as well, but here people feel they have to reach a high technical level before they can allow themselves to make mistakes. So they end up sounding very stiff, don’t let go, and never experience that part of jazz which is energy and pure joy – that’s why you listen to music of any kind!
Do you often collaborate with other musicians?
I have my own jazz unit, called ‘Arbeitman and Salaryman’, a pun on the Japanese word ‘arubaito’, meaning part time job. I’ve got several other bands, one called Sazan (Southern) Amigos, after the Southern All Stars, a famous old rock band in Japan. There’s also Funkyoka, my foray into funk, and a variety of others that I participate sometimes with. I think being a Western face is positive, because if I’m capable of doing interesting stuff, people give me the chance to walk the talk. In a place like New York, there’s no way I could be doing as much as here; it’s not an overcrowded scene.
Where is good to practice in Fukuoka?
It’s lovely that people practice in public in the summer months, but normally that’s because you’re not allowed to practice in your own apartment and rehearsal studios are quite expensive. Actually, a good option for people who want to practice their horn instrument is to rent a karaoke box – I’ve done that before with my melodica. I hesitate to mention my favorite place to play outdoors, as it’s a secret spot, but I don’t go there that often, so I guess I should share: one of the left turns right at the eastern side of Maizuru Park leads into a little garden, which is a historic spot where a famous Daimyo family lived centuries ago. You can go there with an instrument and have real privacy – at least until too many people read about it in Fukuoka Now!
Do you have a favorite jazz musician?
There are two things I value in a jazz musician. Firstly, the internal spirit, or passion, which comes through if they are feeling the music, and then the intellectual side – do they compose? Some of my great heroes are Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Lennie Tristano. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker. I love Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, when they’re feeling passionate, like the record where they play together on ‘An Evening with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock in Concert’, one of my all-time favorite jazz records. They’re both at the top of their game. It’s like the spirits are dancing with them. Toku is a very famous Japanese flugelhorn player, who I’ve actually jammed with. I also got to jam with guitarist Onuma Yosuke last year, he’s really pleasant and chilled out. Of course, pianist Makoto Ozone is a legend. He gave me a some great advice when I met him recently about how to write your own music to increase your game. Technique is essential but it needs to serve the music. And at the end of the day, music is really about passion.
Interview by Katie Forster for Fukuoka Now
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn181, Jan. 2014)