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Ethnic Minority “Startin’ ”

by Sean Smith

If you’ve been near Shibuya Station in Tokyo at night in the past 12 months, you may well have encountered three young guys playing up a storm to passers-by, many of whom have stopped to listen, cheer and/or dance. This trio goes by the name of Ethnic Minority, and is led by saxophonist Hiroyuki Yokota. Backed by some funky amplified upright bass and a unique drum setup of snare, customized cajon and cymbals, the group has an aggressive, rough-and-ready sound that it has labeled “grunge jazz.” In addition to original compositions, Ethnic Minority have even added a distortion-heavy version of the Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to their repertoire.

After signing with East Works Entertainment, Ethnic Minority is now ready to take its music to a wider audience with debut album, “Startin,’ ” which comprises eight tracks — five of them originals and three covers. The album bursts to life with the powerful “Minority D-,” its unrelenting heavy-rock drums and funky bassline provide the backing for an awesome sax riff. Things then get funky and free with the Ornette Coleman composition “Times Square,” featuring a couple of sax loops over which Yokota is free to improvise, recalling the new-wave funk sound of the early 1980s.

The four-beat rhythm and catchy sax refrain of “Dr. Wild” make for a top dance number that is the real killer tune of the set. And it’s this track, together with the fusion sound of “Upper Summer Love,” that have the most potential to cross over to DJ set lists.

Startin’ is a noteworthy debut that successfully recreates the energy, mood and volume of Ethnic Minority’s live performances — and marks its true arrival as the new upstart on the Tokyo underground jazz scene.