Obituary: Ryo Kawasaki

Fusion stalwart, quantum physicist and guitar synthesizer pioneer who played with Gil Evans, Dave Liebman and many others

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Ryo Kawasaki with Level 8 at the Cotton Club, Japan in 2017. Photo by Y. Yoneda

NGO Nõmme Jazz in Estonia sent the following information 14 May 2020. It was compiled by Tamara Kalantar, a close friend of the Japanese guitarist, who had lived and worked in Estonia for the last 17 years:

In Tallinn, 13 April 2020, after a short illness, the great Japanese musician Ryo Kawasaki died aged 73. He was best known as one of the first musicians to develop and popularise the fusion genre and for helping to develop the guitar synthesizer in collaboration with Roland Corporation and Korg.

Born in Tokyo, 25 February 1947, Ryo attended Nippon University, majored in quantum physics and earned his bachelor of science degree. He went to the United States and settled in New York City in 1973. He immediately became a sought-after sideman on the jazz scene and soon was touring and recording with such talents as Gil Evans, trumpeter Ted Curson, drummers Elvin Jones and Chico Hamilton, pianist Joanne Brackeen, flutist Bobbie Humphries, singer Joe Lee Wilson, saxophonist Dave Liebman and other jazz greats.    

Kawasaki’s discography contains some 32 solo albums, and he also produced or featured on more than 30 other projects. He wrote the jazz ballet Still Point in Estonia, which was staged at the National Opera (2000-2002).

Residing in Estonia for nearly two decades, Kawasaki recorded the album Reval (2001) with Estonian musicians and the live album Tribute To Keith Jarrett (2010).

In 2014, Kawasaki discovered a younger generation of Estonian musicians who inspired him to further develop a jazz-rock sound using his own compositions. His attention to this style had somewhat faded away after recording in the early 1980s with his group Golden Dragon.

In spring 2016, Kawasaki formed a new quartet called Level 8, exclusively with Estonian musicians: Raun Juurikas (keyboards), Kaarel Liiv (electric bass) and Eno Kollom (drums). Level 8 finished recording a self-titled album focusing on Kawasaki’s compositions both from the past and present utilising a funk/fusion/jazz-rock sound. The album Level 8 was released in March 2017.

Ryo appeared numerous times at Nõmme Jazz Festival in Estonia while being a board member and assisting in the production of the event.

In April 2016, NuNorthern Soul released a vinyl EP titled Selected Works 1979 To 1983. A follow-up vinyl EP titled Selected Works Part 2 – 1976 To 1980 was released in April 2017. Some can be heard here on Bandcamp.