Friday, March 4, 2016

Osamu Kitajima - 1976 - Benzaiten

Osamu Kitajima

01. Benzaiten - God of Music & Water
02. Taiyo - The Sun
03. Tengu - A long Nosed Goblin
04. Benzaiten (Reprise)
05. Whoma - Immortality

Acoustic Guitar, Synthesizer, Percussion, Electric Guitar, Koto, Biwa, Drums [African, Mexican], Electronic Drums [Rhythm Machine] – Osamu Kitajima
Bass – Dennis Belfield, John Harris (2)
Biwa – Masako Hirayama
Drums [African] – Kinji Yoshino
Drums [Tsuzumi], Percussion [Narimono] – Kisaku Katada
Electric Bass – Haruomi Hosono
Electric Guitar – George Marinelli
Flute [Hayashi-bue] – Haruyoshi Hosei
Keyboards – Brian Whitcomb
Shakuhachi – Tatsuya Sano
Sho – Yosei Sato

Osamu Kitajima, also known by the pseudonym Justin Heathcliff, is a Japanese musician, producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist.

After studying the classical guitar and the piano as a child, Kitajima was in the 1960s a member of his cousin Yuzo Kayama's band The Launchers. After graduating from Keio University, and already a successful composer of TV and advertising jingles, he moved for one year to the UK in 1971, which brought him in to contact with British folk and psychedelic rock. Inspired in particular by The Beatles, Tyrannousaurus Rex and Syd Barrett, he dubbed himself "Justin Heathcliff" (picked for its English-sounding quality) and issued his lone eponymous album. Released only in Japan, the album became highly prized in collector's circles for its good-natured idiosyncrasy and casual melodicism.

After this album, he dropped the pseudonym and in 1974 released his debut album, Benzaiten (Island Records) under his own name. This instrumental electronic music album was melodically rich and can be defined as a mix of progressive rock and traditional Japanese music.The album also featured Haruomi Hosono and it utilized various electronic equipment such as a synthesizer, rhythm machine, electronic drums, electric guitars, and electric bass.

In 1974, he moved to the Los Angeles area, USA, where he signed a contract with Island Records Later he opened the East Quest Studios there.In 1991, Kitajima released his critically acclaimed album "Behind the Light" in the USA (Higher Octave Music), again under his own name. In it, he blended elements of New Age and traditional Japanese music, e.g. he used the sounds of koto and shakuhachi.

Wishing to explore the expanding world of dance and electronica music, Kitajima began his collaboration with instrumentalist/composer/producer Chris Mancinelli. During the early 1990s the production team initiated a partnership by producing and arranging the albums of many artists in the Asian markets for Warner Bros, Sony Music, Toshiba-EMI, and Pony Canyon Records. These included remixes for the Warner Bros. release of Mari Henmi's "Mon Cheri Mari" and a highly revered re-mix of the all-time classic song "Sukiyaki" by Japanese legend Kyu Sakamoto for Sony Music. These collaborations lead to a record deal with the Virgin/CyberOctave label and the ground breaking release of "Beyond the Circle." The guys also found time to create the underground smash Fabulous Breaker Boys techno/surf release which was a #1 seller on the now infamous Napster and websites. Following this was a project recorded for Miles Copeland's Ark21/mondorhythmica label entitled "Two Bridges Crossing." This music was also featured on the label's acclaimed compilation series "Zen and the Art of Chilling". Copeland shuttered the record label but the project was later released independently.

Kitajima began to receive even wider interest in the West when the track "You Know What I Mean" was featured on the Asian volume of the Love, Peace & Poetry compilation series in 1999, and has since been reissued on CD. After releasing the album, Kitajima has continued to work under his own name. Now associated more closely with New Age music than pop, he currently resides and works in Los Angeles.

If it's true that Benzaiten was often placed in the bargain bins in the 70's that's absolutely a crying shame. If given the proper amount of attention and the appropriate amount of dedication, you'd probably believe this is a unique listening experience in a category of its own. I can only hope that the amount of quality music taking over music stores back in the day is the main reason this Osamu Kitajima album isn't being fondly remembered like it should be.

What exactly is Benzaiten like you ask? Well it takes Japanese and Middle Eastern sounds and creates a very rhythmic and meditative album mostly appropriate for a late night listening experience so you can fully absorb the creativity and rich variety of arrangements. These are slow-moving, almost hypnotizing (and often melodic!) grooves with sitars, acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, flutes (lots of flutes) and other interesting instruments doing a great job encouraging the listener to feel like he or she is somewhere far, far away. Anywhere in Asia in fact.

This feels really authentic too. That's another benefit. If I had to pick a favorite song I'd probably pick either track 2 or track 3 titled "Taiyo (The Sun)" and "Tengu (A Long Nose Goblin)" respectively because the guitar soloing is really wavy and dreamy on these particular occasions, and the crunchy King Crimson Larks Tongue in Aspic-like guitar riff serving as the rhythm is pretty awesome. Some of the stuff that jams in the second half of track 4 ("Benzaiten (Reprise") is surprisingly comparable to any kind of authentic Middle Eastern music you've listened to before. "Benzaiten (God of Music and Water)" actually sort of reminds me of mid 70's jazz/fusion Jeff Beck for some reason. "Whoma (Immortality)" is probably the weakest song since it doesn't sound as well put together like the rest of the material but it has enough enjoyable moments (such as the beautifully played flutes near the end) to keep my rating at 5 stars.

I'm trying to find a comparison to more popular rock bands so you can get a better idea what this Benzaiten album sounds like. I want to say Pierre Moerlen's Gong but you know, I'm never really sure if Gong is being sincere in the way they take all kinds of cultural influences and wrap them together or if they're possibly making a mockery of it. Make no mistake about it, Benzaiten is a believable journey through the spiritual imagination. Well I suppose the music does often times resemble some of the parts from "Larks Tongues in Aspic Part One". Even Osamu's vocals are really original. You can tell he set out to create something different and authentic with Benzaiten. Perhaps the best comparison is to John McLaughlin's late 70's Shakti project. Yeah this Osamu Kitajima album does remind me of that.

Just don't expect guitar jamming in the sense that say, Deep Purple or Mountain used to do (or countless other hard rock bands). With Benzaiten you have to treat each musical instrument as a distinct flavor leading into another musical instrument. These instruments flow together in a really peaceful, relaxing and unique kind of way but the good thing is that it's never boring. That's basically how the album flows for 40 minutes. I'm really glad I gave Benzaiten a chance. Unique music like this doesn't come around very often.



  2. Beautiful album! Had a feeling that AMT's recent album of the same name might have been an homage,and it seems I was right....Which only makes this more special,giving me the chance to trace some of the more obscure roots of some of my favorite music....:-D

  3. Loving this blog so much! thanks from chile