Interview with Producer Yasohachi "88" Itoh

Yasohachi "88" Itoh was born in 1946, in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. His first name is the Japanese character for the number "88." While he was a student at Waseda University in Tokyo, he was a member of the New Orleans Jazz Club, which created the foundation of his love for jazz. After graduating, he worked for Nippon Phonogram (the current Universal Music) for eight years. There he established the East Wind label, for which he produced many jazz artists including The Great Jazz Trio (Hank Jones), Sadao Watanabe, and Terumasa Hino. He produced Joe Sample's album "The Three" which employed direct cutting. That and others remain audiophile favorites today.

In 1978, he joined CBS/SONY, where he oversaw foreign jazz artists including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Weather Report along with domestic artists. In 1995 he took charge of the Legacy & Jazz division and Asian marketing. From 1999 he was additionally responsible for managing the recording division, and oversaw development of SACD (Super Audio CD) and the design and creation of Sony Music Entertainment's new recording studio in Nogizaka, Tokyo. He now oversees the Sony/Village imprint, Eighty-Eights.

Thus far in his career, he has directly produced more than 350 albums worldwide, and overseen the production of over 3,000 albums while working in the popular music division.

How did the East Wind label get started?

The Golden era of jazz during the '60s was thought to be over and jazz was on the wane in the U.S. during the '70s. Starting at the beginning of the '70s, major labels were no longer doing jazz projects and we thought it was an opportune time to record and highlight jazz artists that had been ignored or major jazz artists who were no longer being recorded. We did not want to distinguish between Japanese or U.S. artists. We just wanted to re-discover or even discover new artists whose artistry would be appreciated not just in Japan, but also internationally.

There was a company called Ai Music, whose primary business was artist management and promotion. They managed some of the biggest Japanese jazz artists at the time. Most of these artists were CBS Sony artists. Kiyoshi Itoh, who was a director of jazz A&R at CBS Sony and personally dealt with these artists, had just quit CBS Sony to join Ai Music. He was going to continue to produce records for these artists, this time for Ai Music. It so happens that the records of a pianist, who was one of the artists represented by Ai Music, were already being distributed by Nippon Phonogram. (Nippon Phonogram was the Japanese subsidiary of Phonogram, which was Philips record division). With these relationships already in place, creating a new record label came naturally with Nippon Phonogram in charge of distribution. I was working for Nippon Phonogram and I was assigned to work on this new record label project. I already had a working relationship with Mr. Itoh and Mr. Morisaki. What was happening then is not unlike what is happening today. People were leaving major labels to continue producing projects for independent labels.

Was there a unifying concept or underlying philosophy for the line?

At the very beginning, our goal was to create a label that was not just for the Japanese market, but a label that would be international. One of the things we wanted to emphasize was album cover design. We were heavily influenced by the album covers of CTI. Their jazz covers during the '60s were shocking to us. We wanted to create new and innovative covers for our jazz albums in that vein. For example, for the Live at Village Vanguard albums, we wanted to experiment and use a baseball theme, even though it was unrelated to jazz. The music of Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Tony Williams was really fast-paced and had a sense of speed and rhythm. We also wanted an image that represented something American. The image of Major League Baseball in the U.S. (as contrasted with the Japanese professional league) seemed to capture this idea and the awe and respect we had for their music.

How did you meet David Baker and what led you to work with him?

We were introduced to David Baker, who was the Chief Engineer at Vanguard Studios, by one of Ai Music’s artist / pianist who knew him. That is why we recorded often at Vanguard Studios in New York. We also had David come to Japan to work on a few projects and we got to know him very well. In our recordings, we wanted the rich, “American” sound and we learned a lot from David. David was Yoshihiro Suzuki's (engineer from Nippon Phonogram) mentor. David not only taught us about recording techniques but about American culture and thought processes. David Baker was a very important and key member of the East Wind team. Because of his vast experience including producing, David actively helped us during the record production process in helping us realize plans and ideas that were in our producer's heads.

How well do you think the albums stand up after 30 years?

We recently converted all the masters to the DSD format and I was able to attend the conversion process. Quite frankly, I was not really pleased with the CD sound on the previous release and I wanted to make sure the DSD conversion accurately reflected the original sound. The engineers at the label were pretty stubborn and did not want us to touch or modify the masters. For the LPs, we worked with a really great cutting engineer, Tohru Kotetsu, who cut all the East Wind LPs.

We remembered the sound that we created back then because we consciously adjusted the EQ and levels during the cutting process. If you compared the LP to the CD, it clearly sounded different. We had to get past the engineer’s preconceivednotion. So we took the engineers to listen to the LPs at a well-known jazz bar called Bassie's and A/B’ed the LP and CD. By convincing the engineers and touching up the masters, we were able to bring the sound closer to what we remembered during the DSD conversion process. We remastered all 70 titles that way. I think the recording still sounds fresh today. The tension of the session is there and the quality still stands up. Even though the recording is 30 years old, it sounds like today’s product. It is a testament to the fine engineering work done by David Baker, Yoshihiro Suzuki and Tohru Kotetsu.

What do you think of the re-release on Test of Time Records?

We are very happy about it and I’m sure the musicians are happy to see these albums released in the United States.

List of key East Wind personnel:

Toshinari Koinuma – President of Ai Music and executive producer
Nobuya Itoh – President of Nippon Phonogram and executive producer
Kiyoshi Itoh – Producer (Ai Music)
Yasohachi “88” Itoh – Producer (Nippon Phonogram)
Yukio Morisaki – Planning and promotion (Ai Music)
David Baker – Engineer
Yoshihiro Suzuki – Engineer (Nippon Phonogram)
Tohru Kotetsu – Mastering engineer for vinyl LP (JVC)