To some listeners, this avant-garde Japanese player from the '70s wins the sweepstakes for the most abrasive saxophone sound in history, an important competition indeed in this genre. With some saxophonists claiming their tone can remove coats of varnish from antiques, cook a 20-pound goose in one hour, or even wound a small rodent at 200 feet, there is no denying the impact of Kaoru Abe on alto sax; and on clarinet, he hardly harbored ambitions to be the new Artie Shaw. Unfortunately, his premature death meant he never lived to see the heyday of Japanese avant-garde music, nor enjoy the prestige his type of abilities on saxophone might have garnered him as the interest in free jazz increased in the '90s. He also never held at least half of his releases in his hands, since some of the best material from this player was only released in the years after his death. The entire CD format, allowing the expansive playing time required to properly document his unfolding energy discourse, was also not something he lived to enjoy. Several small labels have practically created cottage industries out of his posthumous releases, pumping out an annual multiple-CD set for several years running. Fans of his playing tend to count backwards from the date of his death to the recording date, the higher the resulting number basically indicating the greater possibility of genius contained within. There are several explanations of this, one rooted in debauchery, and the other in perhaps a worse curse, multi-instrumentalism.
At any rate, this performer's lifestyle is said to have been soaked with liquor, stuffed with drugs, and sniffing with loneliness and tragedy. It had enough of these elements to inspire a movie treatment, nonetheless, so fans of Japanese free jazz have the option of searching for the film Endless Waltz, which supposedly tells the tale of his marriage to the writer Suzuki Izumi -- who had even more problems than he did, if the screenplay is to be believed. In the decade that he didn't quite finish out, the '70s, some fans feel his talents sizzled with the inevitability of a roaring fire that is repeatedly doused with filthy water. If this was the case, he certainly shouldn't be blamed personally for following a lifestyle that many believe to be required for such a career. Dexter Gordon performed brilliantly after drinking entire bottles of vodka, and several acknowledged free jazz masterpieces were recorded by players whipped out of their minds on LSD.
Some of the lack of appeal of Abe's later material has got to come not from the perception that he is out of it but from his introduction of other instruments, including the dreaded harmonica and crudely played guitar. Historically, there are few known cases of saxophonists being praised for adding other instruments into their arsenal, so any critical about-face on this issue can be considered an important development in itself. Other Japanese music scholars have praised the later-Abe material and his use of diverse instruments, but even they seem to feel his work on the alto saxophone has never been equalled. One thing is for sure, no matter how extremely noisy the Japanese music scene has gotten, it has yet to produce another reed player as good as this one. His solo sets were said to be the peak of his creative form, but he also took advantage of opportunities to record with the master American free jazz drummer Milford Graves and the British father of free improvisation, guitarist Derek Bailey. Abe contributes immensely powerful playing to these two completely different contexts. He also can be heard on recordings with other Japanese free players, such as the Aida's Call album, in which he holds forth with dynamic trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and virtuoso bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa, yet another booze casualty. One of Abe's earliest groupings was the New Directions duo in 1970 with Masayuki Takayanagi. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi