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Ryo Kawasaki 1947–2020

The guitarist who made his name with Gil Evans and Elvin Jones in the ’70s was also a technology maven and an electronic dance music pioneer

Ryo Kawasaki of Satellites Records
Ryo Kawasaki

Ryo Kawasaki, a jazz fusion guitarist, software designer, and audio engineer who was also one of the inventors of the guitar synthesizer, died April 13 in Tallinn, Estonia, where he had been living for 20 years. He was 73.

His death was announced by his daughter, Tane Kawasaki Saavedra, in a Facebook post published on the morning of April 13. Cause of death has not been disclosed.

Although Kawasaki established himself as a jazz guitarist while still a teenager in Tokyo, he didn’t become internationally known until moving to New York and appearing on the seminal 1974 album The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix. It served as his breakthrough, leading him to gigs in the bands of Chico Hamilton and Elvin Jones and in Tarika Blue, as well as tours with Dave Liebman, Joanne Brackeen, his own band the Golden Dragon, and as a solo performer.

He spent much of the 1980s off the road, working with the Roland and Korg corporations to develop and refine various guitar synthesizers. He was also a pioneer in electronic music, writing music software for the Commodore 64 computer and producing several important early entries in what would much later become known as EDM, before returning to the jazz world in the 1990s and resettling in 2000 in Estonia.

Ryo Kawasaki was born February 25, 1947 in the Kōenji district of Tokyo to Torao and Hiroko Kawasaki. He began studying voice and violin at only four years old: “I could read music before I could even read the newspaper,” he recalled in a 2018 interview. At 10 he bought a ukulele. Then, discovering classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, he bought his first guitar at 14. At 16, he was inspired anew by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 1963 album Midnight Blue; he began learning his favorite records by ear and had soon acquired enough information to join a professional jazz ensemble in Tokyo. By this time he was also already cultivating his interest in electronics, building his own amplifiers, speakers, and even an electric organ of his own design.

After earning a degree in quantum physics at Nippon University, Kawasaki worked as a sound engineer while continuing to play with his jazz ensemble and as a session musician. He made his first album, the descriptively titled Easy Listening Jazz Guitar, in 1969; soon after, however, he began pursuing the new jazz fusion direction, which formed the nucleus of his 1972 followup Ryo Kawasaki Guts the Guitar.

Relocating to New York in July 1973, Kawasaki was greeted at the airport with a gig opportunity behind Joe Lee Wilson. This led to steady gigging in lower Manhattan’s jazz lofts, and soon enough to Gil Evans—who brought Kawasaki into his band for his 1974 album of large-ensemble interpretations of Jimi Hendrix compositions. He remained associated with Evans off and on for several years.

1976 was a banner year for Kawasaki; he joined the bands led by drummers Chico Hamilton and Elvin Jones, as well as beginning an association with keyboardist Phil Clendeninn’s fusion outfit Tarika Blue. He also performed in Tokyo with the Evans Orchestra, and recorded two albums in New York, Juice and Eight Mile Road. By 1978, he was concentrating mainly on his own projects, which included duo recordings and tours with Liebman and Joanne Brackeen as well as his band the Golden Dragon. It was with the last of these that he introduced in 1980 the guitar synthesizer he had designed and built for himself the previous year.

The guitar synthesizer proved the beginning of a new odyssey for Kawasaki. It became the centerpiece of his projects for the next few years, including solo concerts and two albums on which he created full arrangements using only his new instrument. Soon he was collaborating with Roland and Korg to develop the guitar synthesizer further.

That direction was compounded in 1982 with the introduction of the Commodore 64 home computer. Fascinated by it, he learned to code and in 1983 introduced four new music-making programs: the Kawasaki Synthesizer, Rhythm Rocker, Magical Musicquill, and MIDI Workstation. He also created his own home studio, band, and label, all called Satellites, and used them to produce and release an important series of electronic dance records, including “Electric World” (1986), “One Kiss” (1987), “Say Baby I Love You” (1988), and “Pleasure Garden” (1989); the first three are considered early classics in the genres of house, the last in techno.

Kawasaki returned to jazz in 1991 with a surprising turn: Here, There, and Everywhere, a solo acoustic guitar recording. Acoustics would become an increasing interest of Kawasaki’s, though he would frequently combine them with electric guitar and synthesizers for the remainder of his career. Fusion remained a singular preoccupation as well, with Kawasaki always searching for new sounds, textures, and funk grooves. He spent much of the 1990s working with vocalists Ilana Iguana and Camila Benson, producing several albums for Benson on his Satellites label.

Commissioned to write a jazz ballet, Still Point, for the Estonian National Opera House in 2000, Kawasaki moved to that nation’s capital city of Tallinn and refocused his performing career on Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where he worked with a Lebanese/Syrian organ-jazz quartet. In 2016, he formed a band in Tallinn called Level 8, comprising himself and several younger musicians in a contemporary take on the jazz fusion he’d helped to develop in the 1970s. Level 8 released a self-titled live album in 2019.

“A true original,” his daughter wrote in her Facebook message. “…[Y]our fire will burn forever as your music plays on and we continue to carry your light. I love you. Ciao Papa.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.