Shibusashirazu Orchestra set to sprawl

Twenty years on, big-band collective shows no sign of reining in the show

by James Hadfield

Things got off to a memorable start at England’s Glastonbury Festival in 2002. Revelers were roused from their tents on the first morning to find the main Pyramid Stage overrun by a 40-strong Japanese big band, complete with costumed performance artists, butoh and go-go dancers. The late radio DJ John Peel, long the nation’s arbiter of leftfield musical taste, deemed it the highlight of the event. Headliners Coldplay couldn’t hope to compete in comparison.

If there’s one thing you can always rely on Shibusashirazu Orchestra for, it’s spectacle. The group is an ever-shifting collective of jazz veterans, rockers, cabaret performers and avant-garde dancers in various states of undress. They’re led by Daisuke Fuwa, a shaggy, Sapporo-born bassist who spends concerts smoking furiously on clove cigarettes and swigging beer, in between conducting the carefully channeled mayhem.

“We were already going to Europe at that point,” Fuwa recalls of the festival. “But with Glastonbury, I think it was thanks to a lot of” — he pauses, giggles — “bad gaijin (foreigners) who were coming to Japan at the time and taking home stories about this crazy music they’d heard. It was like word of mouth.”

Shibusashirazu are currently basking in the glow of a prolonged 20th anniversary celebration, which culminates with the release this month of their latest album, “Shibu-Yotabi,” on the Plankton label. It’s their first record after a brief stint with major label Avex, who presumably lost interest when they realized they hadn’t signed the next Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. On it, the band attempt something they haven’t tried before: brevity.

“This took the longest to make out of any of our records to date,” says Fuwa. “When we did studio recordings in the past, the longest we ever took was over four days. With this album, we used lots of different recording methods, getting hands-on with each track, adding and removing things. We cut a lot, actually.”

There was no such restraint at the band’s 20th anniversary gig at Hibiya Open Air Concert Hall last September, which lasted for nearly four hours. More than 60 musicians, dancers and artists participated in total, including four drummers, a toy-piano player and a troupe of human sheep who occasionally filed across the stage.

It wasn’t even the most ambitious thing they’d done to date.

Shibusashirazu first emerged from the underground theater scene in Kichijoji, the neighborhood in western Tokyo that is still a base for many of the group’s members. Fuwa was originally invited to create an orchestra to accompany a performance by the Hakken no Kai troupe at Roman Gekijo, a now-defunct porn cinema.

“There were well-known people like Tomorowo Taguchi taking part, but it was a bit too underground,” he says. “They didn’t really have any audience.”

Already an established name on the Tokyo jazz circuit, he didn’t have much trouble finding musicians to take part. “It was people like Masami Shinoda, Naoji Kondo, Junji Hirose, Shiro Onuma . . . free-jazz players, many of whom are dead now, and of course most of them had plenty of time on their hands.

“The performance was a lot of fun,” Fuwa continues. “But with this whole underground theater crowd, the after-party was awful. Just total bedlam. So we all said, ‘if it’s going to be like this, why don’t we just play by ourselves, so we can have the after-party to ourselves too?’ “

For their next performance, the group moved up the road to the Mandala live house, where “we had 18 or 20 members, and about 12 people in the audience.” Fuwa played a wind synthesizer for the show (“it made this funny sound, like ‘myooooon,’ that I couldn’t control at all”), prompting guitarist Haru Miyazawa to comment “shibusashirazu no tsuugonomi” — a slightly more nuanced way of branding someone a clueless amateur. The name stuck.

Inspired by the likes of Gil Evans, the Sun Ra Arkestra and Europe’s Instant Composers Pool, Fuwa tried to strike a balance between big-band arrangements and untrammeled improvisation. “At the start, the music was really simple,” he says, “just melodies and chords, with no arrangements. When everybody comes in playing the same tune, it has this really destructive force. Like, if you have everyone singing (Deep Purple’s) ‘Highway Star,’ including Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar solo . . . We wanted it to have a sense of humor.”

The group’s pieces are now more carefully structured, but they still leave plenty of room for maneuver. Live, familiar songs from their repertoire are diced and rearranged: the rhythm section suddenly drops out for a harmonica solo, the horns erupt into a wailing cacophony, or the percussionists divert everything into Blaxploitation funk territory. Sometimes, it’s simply a question of who’s on the bandstand that day. When they played at Fuji Rock Festival in 2007, the group interrupted a medley of hits to allow grizzled folk singer Kan Mikami to take a solo spot.

Though Shibusashirazu are often tagged as a “free-jazz orchestra,” it isn’t the most helpful of descriptions, implying something both more untethered and unlistenable. Better points of reference might be the big-band experiments of Charles Mingus or the fevered genre collisions of The No-Smoking Orchestra.

Along with arranging pieces, Fuwa is also responsible for devising the theatrical elements that have become an integral part of the band. The go-go dancers were an early addition, and in 1993 Shibusashirazu recruited butoh dancers from the Dairakudakan troupe to participate in a performance at the Yokohama Honmoku Jazz Festival.

“I think what’s characteristic about Shibusashirazu pieces is that most of them are made for theatrical performance,” Fuwa says. “Because of that, the dancers are able to create these scenes, and it’s also easy to improvise, because you know where things are heading.”

This melding of music and spectacle found its perfect expression in Tent Shibusa, a touring big top that the group first unveiled in 1994, incorporating elaborate staging, pyrotechnics and — in one case — even a water slide. Over the years, they’ve pitched it everywhere from Okinawa to Kyoto University. “The most memorable was in Iida, Nagano Prefecture (in 2003),” says Fuwa. “We spent three weeks putting the tent together, then played a single show. It took us four days to clear the site up again at the end.” He shakes his head, laughing.

“What the hell were we thinking?”

Shibusashirazu Orchestra play at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo, on April 22 (7 p.m, ¥3,500, [03] 3477-8750); Dojima River Forum, Osaka, on April 29 (6:30 p.m, ¥4,300, [06] 6341-0115); and Nagoya Club Quattro on April 30 (7 p.m, ¥3,500, [052] 264-8211). Shibu-Yotabi is released March 7 on Plankton. For more information, see www.plankton.co.jp/shibusa