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Tsutomu Nakai
Tsutomu Nakai

In the world of jazz, where genres intertwine and boundaries blur, few artists have mastered the art of merging cultural influences with musical expression quite like Japanese guitarist Tsutomu Nakai. As the buzz around his upcoming performance at Zinc Jazz Club on September 4th reaches a crescendo, we had the privilege of engaging in a conversation that delves deep into Nakai’s musical roots, his innovative approach to improvisation, and his aspirations for connecting with a diverse audience through his soul-stirring melodies.

Nakai’s journey is a symphony of intersections. Born and raised in the vibrant tapestry of Japanese culture, he was drawn to the strings of a guitar at an early age, weaving together his heritage with his passion for jazz. His unique ability to blend the intricate harmonies of traditional Japanese music with the improvisational freedom of jazz has earned him acclaim on the global stage. Nakai’s music is a sonic dialogue that bridges the gap between cultures, resonating with listeners from Tokyo to New York, and everywhere in between.

As he prepares to grace the stage at Zinc Jazz Club, Nakai’s reputation as a virtuoso with a penchant for crafting narratives through music precedes him. His compositions are an exploration of emotions and ideas, a sonic canvas where he deftly blends his heritage with modern jazz sensibilities. This upcoming performance promises to be an embodiment of his artistic evolution – a showcase of cultural synergy that invites the audience to experience the world through Nakai’s musical lens. The anticipation mounts as we eagerly await the night when the Zinc Jazz Club will be infused with the melodies that have traveled continents to captivate our ears and hearts.

Charles Carlini: Your music has often been hailed as a captivating blend of jazz intricacies and cultural nuances. Could you shed some light on how your Japanese heritage has imprinted itself on your unique musical style? Furthermore, in the process of crafting your compositions, how do you strike a delicate balance between honoring tradition and embracing avant-garde innovation?

Tsutomu Nakai: Growing up in Japan immersed me in a world culturally and ideologically distinct from the familiar rhythms of New York that I now call home. As I stand on stage alongside my guitar, belting out jazz melodies, I like to believe that a shared passion erases the cultural gaps between me and my audience. Still, traces of my heritage inevitably thread through my music, enriching the experience. The sensitivity I uphold, both in performance and rehearsal, draws inspiration from the Japanese reverence for intricate details and self-care, among other influences shaping my musical expression.

Unraveling the sources of every musical facet would be an endless journey, a puzzle hard to fully decipher. Amid crafting new harmonies, I remain faithful to my emotions and inner compass, whether they spring from personal narratives or the spark of external inspiration. This might stem from the deep well of historical richness or the fresh fount of innovative thought, both cherished attributes of Japan’s artistic legacy. Sometimes, a simple gaze out of a rain-streaked window births melodies as if by magic.

My aim is to avoid confining music within boundaries or definitions. As a result, tradition and avant-garde elements naturally converge, melding into a crucible of pure, resplendent music.

CC: Improvisation is the lifeblood of jazz, infusing each performance with a distinctive energy. As you prepare for your eagerly anticipated gig at Zinc Jazz Club, could you share your insights into how you navigate the unpredictable waters of live improvisation? What glimpses can you offer into your creative mindset when the stage is your canvas?

TN: As widely acknowledged, improvisation mirrors the unpredictability of snowflakes—each unique and never duplicating its form. Just like the frozen water crystals that gather in clusters, spikes, and intricate webs, defying anticipation, my long-standing collaboration with fellow musicians over the past decade engenders a profound mutual comprehension and respect. This rapport furnishes me with the ease to improvise, even amid challenges. This dynamic holds true whether I’m jamming with familiar comrades or with those I may not know as intimately. The realm of the unknown remains constant, as does the realm of opportunity.

The sensation of standing atop a stage is unmatched in its exhilaration. Hoping the audience shares my intrigue about the hidden potentials within the performance, I endeavor to play into that curiosity. I strive to shatter preconceptions of Jazz and dismantle any constraints, regardless of the audience’s familiarity with the genre. In essence, I aim to obliterate fixed notions and open up a world of limitless possibilities.

CC: The Zinc Jazz Club stands as a venerable monument to musical history, having welcomed both established icons and rising stars. With your performance scheduled for September 4th, what experiences and emotions do you hope to evoke within the hearts of your audience? How do you plan to harness the venue’s legacy to craft an experience that is uniquely Tsutomu Nakai?

TN: I’ve observed a recent shift in the crowd frequenting iconic jazz venues like Zinc Bar, where a more diverse and youthful audience has emerged compared to the pre-pandemic era. It’s truly inspiring to witness how younger individuals, who’ve discovered these venues through social media and other online avenues, are not only stepping into places like Zinc Bar but also becoming a lasting part of the scene. The audience at Zinc Bar eagerly absorbs every note you send their way, fostering a shared respect between performer and listener.

My aspiration is to embolden these young enthusiasts to nurture their curiosity, to break free from any inhibitions, and to champion both self-discovery and consideration for those around them. A blend of self-care and compassion for their fellow listeners can drive their journey. Playing within the walls of a monumental establishment like Zinc Bar inherently carries the weight of jazz history, a legacy that every individual who graces the stage bears.

I firmly believe that those who listen to my music can discern the thoughtfulness and passion woven into each plucked string, every pause. This venue provides a unique platform for the audience to engage without bias or preconceived notions, offering a space where pure listening can unfold.

CC: Collaborative endeavors have woven themselves intricately into the tapestry of your career, leading you to collaborate with artists from diverse genres. Could you regale us with an anecdote about a particular collaboration that has left an indelible mark on your musical journey? How have these collaborative ventures sculpted your artistic philosophy and approach?

TN: Collaborating with fellow artists stands as one of the most pivotal and enlightening experiences for any creative soul. Some years back, I had the privilege of teaming up with the incredibly talented singer-songwriter AYA IDFGHOIDF. While her primary forte lies in the realm of Pops, Aya’s musical prowess spans a diverse spectrum, a quality that deeply impressed me. Even when she performed a classic Jazz standard during our recording and live sessions, her rendition bore her unmistakable signature. This wasn’t a fact that left me uneasy; on the contrary, it was invigorating. Witnessing her unique artistic imprint consistently shine through, irrespective of the process or variables at play, was both startling and refreshing.

Her unshakable individuality became a catalyst, driving me to prioritize emotions like love, passion, and sincerity during my own performances. These attributes outweighed the confines of any genre. In the grand scheme of things, the essence of music remains undivided.

CC: The universal language of music possesses an unparalleled ability to transcend borders, cultures, and languages, resonating deeply within the souls of listeners. In the realm of live performance, what fundamental message do you aspire to communicate through your melodies? How do you envision your music forging connections among a heterogeneous audience, each individual interpreting the notes in their own unique way?

TN: The sheer power of music is immense, reaching and resonating with all who lend an ear—a shared connection I hold with my audience. Much like the pair of ears atop every set of shoulders, I too bear a tapestry of experiences that have profoundly shaped my music and its underlying message. The boundaries of creativity and collaboration are boundless, a notion that takes precedence each time I cradle my guitar, letting my fingers dance across the fretboard.

Music’s remarkable ability to stretch into the infinite paves the way for constant learning, an evolution that finds visible expression in my playing. Whether you’re of any gender, sexuality, or background, my musical notes hold significance for you—a mere glimpse into the broader ambitions I cherish. This, to me, is just the inception of what I aspire to accomplish.


With heartfelt gratitude, we thank Tsutomu Nakai for sharing his musical journey with us. As we await his performance on September 4th at Zinc Jazz Club, we’re poised to witness his unique musical alchemy. Through his melodies, Nakai reminds us that music transcends boundaries, weaving connections between cultures and souls.

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