Interview: Bruce Huebner talks shakuhachi, Japanese music, and the multicultural life

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi 

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi 

Since the very beginning of my blog's interview series, Bruce Huebner was high on my list of people I wanted to feature. I'm happy that we finally coordinated our busy schedules and time difference to record this conversation. Bruce and I first met in Vancouver, BC in 2014 to work on a project with the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra, and I felt an immediate musical connection and an ease of communication as if we had known each other for years. I think this comes through clearly in our conversation.

Shortly after, we played a duo concert on Christmas day at a Tokyo live house called Tsukiji Mugenryu. It was a full program of originals, jazz and rock covers, Japanese folk melodies, and a few winter holiday tunes mixed in - all arranged for shakuhachi and vibraphone. We had a fun gig and received an enthusiastic audience response, and we decided to bring our music to the US. In 2015, we put together a concert tour of Oregon and California, playing in a wide range of venues and culminating in two appearances at the San Francisco World Percussion Arts Festival.

In the interview, we discuss Bruce's musical background, his first experiences with the shakuhachi, attending GeiDai (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku, or University of the Arts), making the transition from flute and saxophone to shakuhachi, creating music with influences from around the world, and much more. The music tracks included are:

Kiss Me Now (Bruce Huebner, Tomoya Hara, Mark Tourian, Sendo Saori)
Falling Leaves (Bruce Huebner, Gunnar Linder)
Fond Memories (Bruce Huebner, Curtis Patterson)
Spanish Wind (Bruce Huebner, Koufuu Suwa)
Kashmir (Bruce & Eien)

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi

Bruce Huebner on shakuhachi

Yokohama-based Californian Bruce Huebner received his MA in traditional Kinko style shakuhachi from Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1993 where he studied under Yamaguchi Goro (National Treasure) as a Monbusho Scholar.  After a seminal six-year professorship in Fukushima Prefecture,  he returned to Tokyo in 2000 and founded the jazz-world group Candela with pianist/composer Jonathan Katz.  The critically acclaimed group featured the shakuhachi in Japan, American and European tours and on numerous recordings.  In 2007 he began the popular "Cherry Blossom Tours" with koto player Curtis Patterson. In 2011 his "Zabu Tone Music" label released their eighth CD, "ZUI" produced with jazz guitarist Tomoya Hara.  He is a also a musical spokesman who has appeared on NHK BS TV, Tedx, Nihon TV, and he has conducted numerous lecture concerts in schools, community centres, clubs, temples, and colleges, including Rome University, Kent State, St Lawrence University, New York, and the University of British Columbia. He has performed over 80 concerts in Tohoku since 3/11.


Bruce & Eien project

Japan trip Part 2 - seeing concerts, kabuki, and friends

In the Japan trip Part 1 entry, I described the primary reason for my recent trip: Edo Bayashi intensive with Suzuki sensei. In addition to my lessons, there was a lot happening during my stay and I was able to attend some performances and see many friends.

The day after I arrived, I went to see Azusa Yamada's vibraphone trio in Tokyo. We first met almost 2 years ago through another Tokyo musician because I was looking for a vibraphone to rent for a Ginza performance with shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner. Azusa gave us a great rate to rent her Premier vibes for a two-week period, and two things remain in my memory about the instrument: it was one of the heaviest vibes I've ever played on, and there was a low E (which I couldn't get used to and had to cover up with a music stand bag for the gig). Her performance in the intimate space was very good and I especially appreciated all the original material in the program as well as the exciting playing of pianist Sachiko Nakajima.

The next day was the Wakayama Shachu performance at the Bettara Ichi Festival, which I described in Part 1. The day after that was a collaborative concert in Asakusa called Taiko Battle Live, featuring Makoto Yamamoto of Osuwa Daiko. I've known Makoto for several years, having visited him in Nagano as well as presenting Osuwa Daiko for concerts and workshops in Vancouver, BC. The program consisted of original music, solo performances, and some traditional music. It was also a fun surprise to see my very first taiko teacher Saburo sensei in the audience, as he had taught some classical repertoire to Makoto in preparation for this concert.

I enjoyed checking out Hitoshi Hamada perform at his CD release event in Shinjuku. I first met Hamada san in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. This vibraphone and saxophone duo played some very challenging original music and Hamada san sounded great as always. I was there with Bruce and Azusa so we took a group photo after the performance. It's not every day that three vibraphonists are in the same room together.

I was fortunate to see the famous Kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura at Kokuritsu Gekijou (National Theater) in Tokyo. As part of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the play has been divided into three parts, and I saw the first third. The middle third runs in November and the final third runs in December. Because each part is approximately 6 hours long, the audience is treated to rarely-presented scenes which many kabuki fans have never seen or heard of. Everything was excellent: acting, music, staging, and bento. This was especially meaningful for me because I had been a geza musician (playing nohkan and shinobue) for Portland State University's presentation of Chushingura in February 2016. The video of that performance can be seen here: Chushingura blog entry.

It's always a great pleasure and inspiration to visit Ranjo san at his workshop in Chiba. He continues to answer my questions and share his wealth of knowledge every time I see him. In this photo, Ranjo san is wrapping one of my flutes to prevent a small crack from opening. I also met Fujita san on this recent visit, a great fue player from Akita Prefecture who demonstrated some of the music from his local festival on a Ranjo #4 hayashi fue. For more information about Ranjo san, check out this blog post: Ranjo blog entry.


Chichibu in Saitama is a special place. It's best known for the spectacular Yo Matsuri (annual night festival, Dec 2-3) and the music of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi. But there is also a very long history of Ji Kabuki (地歌舞伎, local kabuki) going back to the Edo period. This Hagitaira kabuki stage is at least 170 years old and continues to be used for theater and music. Apparently there are no carpenters in the area who are properly trained to make repairs on such an old building, so they have had to bring experts all the way from Kyushu. I attended the October 30, 2016 event where there were three kabuki presentations: elementary school, middle school, and finally the adult group. The performances were complete with live geza music as well as gidayu chant and shamisen, and the day was interspersed with performances of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, Tsugaru Shamisen, and Chichibu Ondo. The overall presentation was remarkable, especially considering this very rural setting. Of course the youngest performers were the audience favorites, and the best moment for me was when the little girl finally got a turn on the odaiko, outplaying the previous versions by teenage boys and an adult. And all of the food and drinks I tried during the event were memorably delicious.

Another unique experience was visiting "the Switzerland club of Kanto" in Katashina village of Gunma Prefecture. These remarkable wooden horns are handmade by Kinsaku Hoshino using local cedar. I was told that the curved bottom portion is made out of a naturally shaped section of the branch that was bent by the weight of the heavy snow. Even the mouthpiece (similar to trumpet) is handmade. I was able to get a decent sound right away, so perhaps my music education degree finally came in handy many years later. Hoshino san offered to let me try the carving tool so I carefully took a turn.

Finally, I got to see an incredible concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo of the incomparable Eitetsu Hayashi. This was a mostly solo performance with the exception of one piece composed by percussionist Midori Takada. They have a long history of working together and this was apparent in their cohesive sound. Eitetsu's concerts are fantastic every single time. Without fail, there are always things I've never seen before, and such consistent creativity and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Concluding the program was a 20-minute solo odaiko performance, and this was the finest odaiko playing I've ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.