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Leverages 杠杆

by Masahide Tokunaga

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Justin Von Strasburg
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Justin Von Strasburg Masahide Tokunaga is my favorite alto saxophone player on the planet. His restraint from playing traditional patterns and sounds is amazing. I went back and forth on what track is my favorite, but I chose the first one because I like that I can heard the room around him really well. Favorite track: 1.Afternoon on Friday, May 6th, 2022.
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Masahide Tokunaga 德永将豪: alto saxophone, composition
Recorded in Tokyo, May 6th and 10th, 2022
Mastered by Hiroyuki Ura 浦裕幸
Designed by Liu Lu 刘璐


released November 5, 2022

Born in Yamaguchi city in 1982; Masahide Tokunaga lives in Tokyo. He plays improvisation music, using alto saxophone.

Tokunaga released the CD Alto Saxophone on Slub Music in 2009. Since around 2010 he has set himself apart from other sax players in pursuit of establishing an extremely original blowing style/playing structure permeated with delicacy and tension. The results of this exploration can be heard on his following solo/collaboration albums released on Ftarri, and also the new cassette in 2022: Leverages, Masahide's composition piece.

In cassette's preparing days, Zhu Wenbo invited Masahide Tokunaga to do an interview by email, around the topics of his life, his saxophone practice, his former CDs and the new cassette. Thanks to Kazuya Takeda for English translation.


Wenbo: We could start this interview from your own background. Actually I have not searched out too much info about you, just know that you was born in 1982 in Yamaguchi city, and now you lives in Tokyo. When did you move to Tokyo? Did you move here for music? I know that many people move from their hometown to some big cities just for there active music scene, including myself.

Masahide: I moved to Tokyo at the end of March 2005 after graduating from my university in Yamaguchi.

At that time, I was unsure of several options for my future. After graduating from university, I had also vaguely thought of studying abroad at a music school to further my saxophone studies, but decided against it for financial reasons.

And I delayed to start look for a job after graduation because I was studying abroad for a year while in the university as an exchange student. so I was thinking to stay in university for another one year and restart to look for a job in the next year.

But fortunately, I received job offers from two companies (one is in Tokyo and another is in Fukuoka). And I decided to go with the one in Tokyo.

Although it was an ordinary company that had nothing to do with music, but the life in Tokyo had a positive influence on my music.


Wenbo: Alto saxophone is your main instrument. When did you start to learn this instrument? Is there any reasons?

Masahide: In the summer of 1997, I bought a second hand alto saxophone at a used CD store, owned by Ichiraku Yoshimitsu/Doravideo, where I used to come frequently. They also sold used musical instruments.

The price of the saxophone that I bought was 39,800 yen on the tag, but the shop guy said, "If you want to buy it, it's ok for only 30,000 yen," so I decided to buy this instrument with my own savings and some help from my parents.

When I bought the saxophone, the shop guy at the store tricked to lend me a VHS of a live performance by John Zorn and EYE Yamatsuka as an "Instruction video for beginners".

At that time I even didn't know that the saxophone needs a reed. So I went to buy one at a nearby store of musical instruments, went back to the used CD store again, and finally I could have started to play it.

Why alto saxophone? It was a coincidence. At that time, someone sold a YAMAHA Student Model alto saxophone to that store, and I bought it before others did. From that moment, my life with alto saxophone has began.

I have dabbled in various instruments such as piano, drums, guitar, and live electronics, but the alto saxophone is the only one that I have continued to play until now, and I think that is because it suits me well.

From childhood to high school, I was a swimmer. How hard I practiced swimming, it depends on the period. Sometimes practiced very hard and serious and other times not so much. When I was concentrating to practice at the most seriously, I went to swimming school six days a week and even won a championship in Yamaguchi prefecture. Looking back now, it has similarities (especially how to breath) between making a sound with a saxophone and swimming in water.


Wenbo: Have you ever tried other kinds of saxophone, such as tenor or baritone, or clarinet, or any other instruments?

Masahide: I have played a little bit of each of the other reed instruments, but have never thought about playing them seriously as my own instruments.

I bought a new alto saxophone in June 2020, and this is my fourth alto saxophone. I have thought about buying a soprano or tenor, but as a result, I'm doing my best to pursue the sound of the alto saxophone.


Wenbo: Did you have any teacher for learning this instrument, or fully self-taught? Before or in the learning this instrument, did you have any other music learning or experience? Such as playing in a rock band..

Masahide: From childhood to elementary school, I have learned piano and drums at Yamaha music school.

In junior high school, I have played drums in a rock band. I joined a copy band to perform at a school festival. Copying the Blue Hearts and other Japanese punk bands.

I was a member of the brass band club in high school and university, but have quitted both of them after short period of time.

Since I was having trouble finding a place to practice, it was attractive to me to be able to practice at school when I joined the club. But I couldn’t fit in with the group fundamentally because the type of music they play is different from what I want.

During junior high school and high school, I learned the basics of playing the instrument from a local semi-professional saxophonist.

During high school and university, I took classical lessons from a local classical professional. He was a teacher who gave lessons to students preparing for music school, and although the lesson fee was very expensive, it was well worth for me. I practiced Marcel Mule etudes in the lessons.

After started working, I studied saxophone and jazz theory with Naruyoshi Kikuchi for three years.


Wenbo: For the topic of saxophone player, especially alto saxophone improvisation players from Japan, many music lovers might immediately think of Kaoru Abe, maybe some other followers including Urabe Masayoshi, Harutaka Mochizuki, Makoto Kawashima.. It’s obvious there is a continuous line in their music, but you are very different from their sound. I can’t make sure if we could name their style as a representative “Japanese free-improvisation saxophone sound”. Maybe we could not say that, because it is just a one-sided observation from a non-Japanese cultural system. So how do you think about that “classical Japanese free-improvisation saxophone sound”? And during your learning and practicing, did you get any influence from jazz/free jazz/free improvisation things?

Masahide: I bought several CDs of Kaoru Abe. I think his duo with Masayuki Takayanagi is amazing. However, I don’t want to follow other player’s style. If I play by imitating someone’s style, I would not bother to perform in front of people. No matter how poor and ugly it is, if the sound is not the person’s own sound, it is meaningless. And I don't like performances that bare their emotions. Kaoru Abe's lifestyle is also not welcoming and I don't want to refer to it.

One non-Japanese but noteworthy Asian alto saxophonist is Kang Tae-hwan from Korea. I have had the privilege of experiencing his live performance several times during my teenager. Although I myself don't play with circulatory breathe, I think I have been influenced by his playing in some small way.


Wenbo: If I describe your music style to other friends, I might mentioned things like: rich overtones, long tones/long breath, very focus sound but also relax and enjoyable. I don’t know if you agree with that. Would you like to tell us that who influence your music? I guess that maybe not all of them play saxophone.

Masahide: Sachiko M, Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, Tetuzi Akiyama, Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino, etc. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to their live performances in my teens and early twenties. Their music had the greatest influence on me.

At the Yoshimitsu Ichiraku owned used CD store, where I bought my first saxophone, I heard a variety of improvised music. Then he brought many musicians to Yamaguchi on tour, and I was able to see them perform live.

One day I got a flyer which informed Ichiraku has a live performance. So I went to the gig. Maybe by bicycle. It was I.S.O.'s concert, which was in July 1997, I think. It was my first experience of improvised music. Later, I also went to see Seiichi Yamamoto and Kazuhisa Uchihashi perform live in Yamaguchi. Especially Keiji Haino's guitar performance astonished me when I was a junior high school student.

I first met Taku Sugimoto in 2003 when I had just come back from my study abroad in US. Sugimoto and Tetuzi Akiyama came to see my live performance with Takefumi Naoshima in Enban at Koenji, Tokyo.

In 2004, I performed with Taku Sugimoto in Kokura and Yamaguchi for the first time. At that time, we performed pieces composed by Taku Sugimoto.


Wenbo: In your saxophone playing, is there any note or sound you enjoy very much so that always play naturally and involuntarily? Like many some blues musician always plays song in E.

Masahide: The lowest note of alto saxophone (holding all the holes in the saxophone), which is D flat at concert pitch. And B flat at concert pitch, holding all the holes in the upper half of the tube by holding all the fingers of the left hand except the little finger.

When playing an instrument, I believe that blowing the lowest note is the most effective way to make the instrument resonate. In terms of resonance, I also like low G. Then I sometimes use low D as well. I often play using these notes and the overtones derived from them.


Wenbo: I heard that you practice yoga. Is that true? Do you think there is any links between practicing yoga and your music style?

Masahide: Originally I have been interested in yoga and I started going to a yoga school in around 2014 and tried some different schools of yoga. As a result, I found that Iyengar Yoga, established by a man named B.K.S. Iyengar, was right for me, and still now I go to the school of Iyengar Yoga. Since I started doing yoga, the quality of my sound has improved much more.


Wenbo: I first knew your music through the album Alto Saxophone 2 released by Ftarri. I think it was 2015. After that I heard more including your debut album Alto Saxophone from Slub Music, and your third solo CD Bwoouunn: Fleeting Excitement, and some collaboration live recordings. A few days ago I listened your track in the compilation from Improvisation Music From Japan, seems that was your earliest recordings (2003). I could feel some changes during this process, meanwhile can’t make sure if the change is from your performing or the management to the recording. For example in Alto Saxophone 2, there is very loud sound, but I guess you did not play loud, but in the mastering Toshimaru Nakamura set a very “close” sound to make it loud. So that I would love to listen from your side: in the past 20 years, what kinds of changes happen to your performance style and things you focus on?

Masahide: In "Alto Saxophone 2", I am actually blowing very loud in part.

Some changes that you found are due to the effect of my yoga practice. To use a piano analogy, if my sound before I discovered yoga was a cheap upright piano that you could buy for about 50,000 yen, my current sound is like an 800,000 yen grand piano. However, there is still room for improvement. I could play a broken piano as like a prepared piano, but in my case I did not go in that direction.

Above all, I think the change from "Alto Saxophone 2" to "Bwoouunn" is that I got the higher level of concentration and the ability to sustain it. There is a limit to what I can do if I just practice saxophone aimlessly. The key point of making the saxophone resonant is based on the stability of the body.

I think there are some difference due to recording and mastering, but I don't really know. However, I think it is important to have someone who understands the music I am doing for the recording and mastering process. If someone who doesn't understand my intention of the music is working on it, the result becomes something else entirely.


Wenbo: In my memories, you always play improvisation music before, solo or together with some other people. But seems you started to try some composition in these years. In 2019 you played some concerts performing other composer’s pieces. Your 2021 album While Your Master is Sleeping was composed by Taku Sugimoto. And the cassette in 2022 is your own composition. Nowadays, how different for you to these three interests (improvisation / playing other people’s composition / write your own piece)? Which one your would like to spend more time on?

Masahide: Regarding compositions, I have had the experience of participating as a performer in the composition series that Taku Sugimoto and Taku Unami had organized at loop-line. I also once performed a piece by Taku Sugimoto at Kid Ailack Hall, which is no longer there as well as loop-line. My experiences in those days have been helpful when I compose music recently, .

As for each of the three interest (improvisation/performing other people's compositions/writing my own work), well, they are different things each other as you know, but I think now, what I should not forget above all, is that I put the most value on the sound which comes out from the saxophone finally.


Wenbo: While Your Master is Sleeping was played by you and Hiroyuki Ura, but it was released on Ftarri’s sub-label Hitorri, which limited to solo performance. Is there any reasons for that?

Masahide: Explaining the story of how it happened goes like this. First, I asked Taku Sugimoto to compose a solo piece for me. As a result, he wrote a piece for saxophone and sine wave.

As for the sine wave, it is not so much a performance, but rather the faithful programming of the pitches and timing that were given in detail, and the playback of the music as instructed.

I myself do not know much about the details and the intention of the label. Ultimately, it was entirely decided by the label owner.


Wenbo: For the new composition cassette Leverages, originally it was wrote to me. I have to say that I felt its influence to my performing after some days practicing. I want to know that, for you, where did the composition start from? And why does it have the intention of "leverage"?

Masahide: The original idea came from the yoga practice which is called pranayama. In pranayama lessons, the teacher instructs the students how to breath in, stop breathing, breath out. I simplified this method and applied to form the basis of this piece. Then I tried it out with Fumi Endo (piano) and Tomoki Tai (cello) before submitting to you, and found that it was not bad as an idea for a musical piece, so I finally delivered it to you.

When we do something, we usually accomplish 10 tasks by using 10 powers at the beginning, But as we get used to it and get better at it, we will be able to do 10 tasks with 8, 7, or even less powers. The remaining power can be put on another new challenges in new fields. I believe that this idea of leverage can be applied to the way of thinking, making sounds, and many other aspects. With this hope in mind, I have chosen the word "leverage" as the title of this piece.


Wenbo: During your performance, how do you feel the difference between composition and improvisation? Maybe you could use the new cassette as an example to expand this topic.

Masahide: The way of my composition is to write a score in text, and dare I say it, it is just like an explicit statement of "manners". The manners which is to realize my ideal music.


Wenbo: I always saw your name on Ftarri store’s schedule. Sometimes you are the organizer, sometimes not. So normally how many concerts do you play for one month in Tokyo? Which is more of your own organizing or being invited performances? Do you have any very closed collaborators?

Masahide: I perform at Ftarri for 0 times to 3 times a month at most. At Ftarri, I feel easy to concentrate on Music. When I perform at Ftarri, normally I organize the program. The number of concert that Ftarri organize is not so many. Once Ftarri organize a concert, I can get a better payback. Recently, I often perform with Fumi Endo.


Wenbo: I also heard that you did many different jobs for living, including taxi driver and fixing tubes. What kind of job are you doing now? Have you think about making living by music (not limit to saxophone improvisation music)?

Masahide: After graduating university, I worked for an IT company for 8 years, a fixing tube company for 5 years, and now I've been working as a taxi driver for almost 4 years now. When I was student, I have thought to myself, "I want to make a living from music." However, I think that because I do not make living by music, no one bother my music. So I'm satisfied with my current life.


Wenbo: How long time do you practicing music every day? What kind of practice way will you take? I guess there are also some practice beside the saxophone maybe?

Masahide: I am not able to practice every day. But when I do, it is mainly long tones, of course. Also, I spend more time and frequency practicing yoga than practicing my instrument.


Wenbo: Will you make plans for yourself? Or no clear plan, just let things happen naturally? If there are plans, would you let to share us some plans in the next following year?

Masahide: I don't remember when the last time was, but in November 2022, I will go abroad to play. I’m visiting Switzerland. I think it will be a good opportunity to refresh myself. I would like to travel abroad to play music at least once a year. I am currently working as an employee, but I'm thinking to prepare to work as a self-employment in the next five to six years, although it will take some time. This will allow me to devote more time to my musical activities.

more music from Masahide Tokunaga could be found on:

Alto Saxophone (debut solo album): takusugimoto.bandcamp.com/album/alto-saxophone

Bwoouunn: Fleeting Excitement (third album):

while your master is sleeping (fourth album):

Fumi Endo: Live at Ftarri, March 8, April 11 and June 27, 2021




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