There is something deeply intimidating about discovering an artist for the first time after their death, and discovering them by way of a work that shows them still young in their career but already so fine in their form that it's difficult to see how much further they could bloom. I had been listening to jazz for a good decade and change before I learned about Japanese jazz in general, and two decades and change before learning of late jazzman Ryo Fukui. Like the artist himself, Scenery, his debut album from 1977, and one of the very few he recorded at all, is enjoying a resurgence of interest thanks to a physical and digital reissue program, where before vinyl copies changed hands between diehard devotees for hundreds of dollars. It's one of those records that dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans will appreciate in many dimensions, but it's also the sort of effortlessly listenable music that jazz embodies at its relaxed best.
By the 1970s, jazz in the United States had fragmented. Many of the greats from the decades before had died — John Coltrane, Albert Ayler (Duke Ellington in 1974) — while others had moved into jazz-fusion, funk (Herbie Hancock), or highly experimental territory that hybridized all of the above (Miles Davis). Jazz had never been a truly mainstream concern there to begin with, but it now took even more of a backseat to other forms of popular music that took inspiration from it, from fusion to progressive rock. But outside of the U.S., and especially in Japan, jazz remained alive and well, both on wax and in live performances.
Music history is full of stories about prodigies, and Fukui fits the template. He taught himself to play piano at the age of 22, and relocated to Tokyo at around that time to begin performing there. Scenery was recorded a mere six years after that, and the elegance and dexterity of the record is a testament to two things: Fukui's own natural talent, and the way the world of live music gigs can nurture and accelerate such talent. You only get better by playing over your head, and I think the reason Scenery is as good as it is, this early in Fukui's career, is because that scene surrounded one with people who inspired one to rise to their level.
Scenery features the trio Fukui assembled for his few recorded efforts and much of his live work: him on piano, Satoshi Denpo on upright bass, and Ryo's brother Yoshinori Fukui on drums. Much of the material is their own sprightly, dexterous take on standards, and most every song shows off a different facet of Fukui's playing: a hard-bop version of "It Could Happen To You"; the languid and crystalline "I Want To Talk About You"; the driving, modal "Early Summer". His one original composition, the title track, is a slow-motion tune in the vein of Bill Evans at his most introspective, again its own facet. Every part of the record is technically top-notch, especially the engineering: it demands to be played on big speakers in an even bigger room.
For just about his entire life, Fukui was an unknown outside of Japan, if only because Japanese jazz as such tended to be the domain of a devoted few, and even then only a handful of Japanese artists ever reached Western ears. It didn't surprise me that the Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide (1985) didn't list Fukui. Neither did Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia (2005), nor Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler's Biographical Encyclopedia Of Jazz (1999), nor the eighth edition of The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings (2006). Japanese artists do show up in those pages, but mainly if they were lucky enough to cross the ocean and produce recordings of relative accessibility to Western listeners. E.g.: Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of the first female Japanese jazz musicians of note, appears in the Rolling Stone guide, but that seems mostly due to having her work issued on an American label (RCA), then relocating to the United States to set up her own label in conjunction with her husband Lew Tabackin. Fukui, who spent most of his career as a live performer and whose entire recorded output could be counted on one hand, was far easier to pass over.
Scenery was originally issued only once on the Nadja label, a sublabel of Trio Records (owned by the company that would eventually become the stereo equipment manufacturer Kenwood). For a long time, aside from bootlegs, the only way to hear the record was to snag the original LP, copies of which changed hands for hundreds of dollars. Then in 2005, Solid Records reissued the album on CD (with bonus tracks taken from his next album, Mellow Dream), and Fukui started to enjoy more of the attention he'd long missed out on, not just because of all the difficulties mentioned above but because his recorded output was so slender to begin with. (One of them, My Favorite Tune, had a single CD issue in the 1990s and remains out of print in digital format.) There isn't much to his name, but what there is is lovely.