From out of darkness, jazz pianist Tadataka Unno hits notes of resurrection

Jazz pianist Tadataka Unno

In September 2020, jazz pianist Tadataka Unno was suddenly attacked by eight young Black people in Harlem, New York.

“I was knocked down to the ground, and I had no clue why I was beaten by them,” Unno recalled. “Many people were on the street, but they all ignored my calls for help, looking at me like curious onlookers.”

Unno suffered serious injuries, such as a broken right collarbone. He was told by a doctor at the hospital where he was taken that he might not be able to play the piano again.

Yet Unno says, “I was unlucky, but I’m not unhappy.”

Born in Tokyo in 1980, Unno started his career as a musician when he was a student at Tokyo University of the Arts. He moved to New York in 2008. Highly regarded by top musicians not only in Japan but also in the United States, he joined a band whose members included drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Unno was present at the deathbed of pianist Hank Jones, who recognized him as his last disciple.

After the assault, Unno’s drummer friend launched a crowdfunding campaign, and a circle of support for him expanded quickly. Money was raised for his treatment and other expenses, and a specialist doctor even came forward, offering him help to treat the injuries.

After two months of recuperation at his home in New York, Unno spent about five months in Japan.

“I was wondering every day whether I should continue to stay in Japan,” he said. “But when I went to the United States again, my return was welcomed. I felt they needed me, and I realized what warm friendships I had built with my fellow musicians over nearly 15 years.”

Recording in pain

However, Unno was still suffering from arm pain at that time. His surgery was successful, but he was discharged from the hospital immediately after the surgery due to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing him to endure an anxious recuperation at home. When the anesthesia wore off, he took painkillers and later suffered from dizziness and nausea.

Nevertheless, Unno recorded a new album, titled “Get My Mojo Back,” last July. Although he still felt pain and had only about 50-60% of the normal strength in his arms, he said, “I strongly felt that I had no choice but to do it, even under these circumstances.”

The 10 tracks on the album were based on ideas that popped into his head when he was bedridden after the attack.

“This is the first time I’ve written music without using a piano,” Unno said. “Overall, the tunes turned out to be upbeat and cheerful since I felt hopeful of seeing my son, who was only 3 months old when I was attacked, grow day by day.”

One of the tracks, “Birdbath,” features harmonic, light notes created by the saxophonist and trumpet player who play like little birds chirping together at the end of the piece.

“I didn’t instruct them to play that way, but they did. What I’m most pleased about is that we all worked together to create this album,” Unno said.

He has also joined a band in which he was the only Japanese person among members who were otherwise all top Black players. In the United States, where racism stubbornly persists, Unno has interacted with many people without facing discrimination. So it is ironic that he fell victim to an anti-Asian hate crime.

“Now it seems what happened to me was inevitable, and I also think it was rather good that I was a victim,” Unno said. “The world is full of things that are beyond our control, and both suffering and joy exist in that place where we have no control over our precious lives.

“When I listen to the album now, I find it hard to believe I was in pain, I played so well. I feel a magical force.”