Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, Jaga Jazzist and Bruut! challenge jazz’s conservative image

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Grammy Award-winning bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding recently told the Los Angeles Times that one of the problems in bringing jazz to a wider audience was essentially one of image.

Unlike with pop music, where Auto-Tune can airbrush out any vocal shortcomings and computers can tweak instrumental performances, jazz artists spend many years learning their craft, and many don’t peak artistically until they are well into their 30s or 40s. And therein lies the problem, suggested Spalding.

“It takes decades to get the music to a place where it’s worth sharing,” she said. “The beauty of this craft is, it shouldn’t be about who’s prettiest or fastest or strongest or has the coolest clothes. Those are all details that can be sprinkled on top. But we’re in a culture that is obsessed with youth and women and body types and looking cool and hip and selling clothes and products. And the basic tenets of the music don’t align themselves very well with those requirements.”

Not that any of this has been a problem for Spalding, with the 27-year-old’s latest album, “Radio Music Society,” already one of the year’s best-selling jazz albums. She will be performing selections from it at the International Forum in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district on Sunday at 6 p.m. as part of this year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival (TJF).

Also appearing at this year’s festival are the pioneers of so-called death jazz, Soil & “Pimp” Sessions. The six-piece band have found success very much on their own terms. The group’s frontman, who goes by the name Shacho (meaning “president”), agrees with Spalding.

“In Japan, jazz has an image of being both music for adults and difficult,” he tells The Japan Times. “Since we formed our band, we have acted to wipe out that image by infusing dance music with jazz and performing it with the energy of a rock concert. I think that’s why we have reached a bigger audience.”

Bursting onto the Tokyo scene roughly a decade ago, the band steadily built up a loyal following due to their infectious tunes, flamboyant fashion and dynamic live shows, with their music attracting attention here and abroad.

Eschewing the well-trodden path of the jazz circuit, Soil & “Pimp” Sessions were born out of the Tokyo club-jazz scene, which started with DJ/producer types such as United Future Organization and Kyoto Jazz Massive. The next generation of acts were full-fledged bands, with the likes of Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, Sleep Walker and Quasimode leading the way. These bands have, in turn, influenced a newer wave of acts now playing throughout the country.

Over time, there has been increasing crossover between the club-jazz scene and the more traditional circuit with jazz venues putting on more club-style events and musicians from both scenes collaborating both on stage and in the studio. A case in point is a guest appearance by legendary trumpeter Terumasa Hino on the forthcoming album from J.A.M, the piano trio from Soil & “Pimp” Sessions.

When asked directly whether he felt Soil & “Pimp” Sessions have contributed to this cross-pollination, Shacho replies, “If, even in a small way, we have contributed to bringing in younger audiences, that makes me very happy. It’s because we brought our own equipment into clubs that weren’t equipped for live shows, and made the audience move at our jam sessions, much like a DJ does.”

Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, who are currently working on a new album due for release next year, will be appearing at TJF on Sunday at 1 p.m. as special guests to New York outfit Balkan Beat Box, a band not usually associated with jazz. The meeting of hybrid world grooves and death jazz promises to be one of the more original and energetic shows of the festival.

Dutch band Bruut! agree that a lot of people hold prejudices when it comes to jazz, for example that it’s boring or too introverted.

“I’m afraid a lot of jazz musicians themselves are responsible for that, as in recent decades a lot of them made music for musicians,” bassist Thomas Rolff tells The Japan Times on behalf of the band. “It’s up to the musicians to play jazz in a hip way and also remember that stage appearance and being in touch with your audience is an important factor.”

Drawing on various influences from the 1960s, such as surf, boogaloo and soundtrack music as well as jazz, Bruut! is looking to pump some energy and fun back into the genre. The quartet will play the Tokyo International Forum Plaza on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. as part of the Dutch Jazz Garden program.

“Bruut! wants to reach a wider audience by playing direct and powerful (music).” Rolff says. “We combine different styles, but definitely have our roots in traditional jazz. By putting it in a different context even traditional jazz music can reach a younger audience.”

Commenting on the TJF performance, Rolff mentions it’s Bruut!’s first time in Japan.

“It’s a long trip and a different culture, which makes it extra exciting. We’re very curious and excited to see how our music will be received by the Japanese audience.”

These are just two examples of how TJF has been trying to cater to a wider range of tastes and age groups, with some of the artists booked each year pushing the boundaries of what is traditionally defined as jazz.

Another such band, who will be making its first appearance at the festival this year, is Jaga Jazzist from Norway. Since its formation in 1994, the 10-piece outfit has made a name for itself for its experimental sound.

Lars Horntveth, who along with his brother Martin founded the band when they were in their mid-teens, echoes almost exactly the concerns of his peers.

“The label ‘jazz’ sounds old to many people’s ears. Conservative,” he says. “And for many artists, jazz is something that is very much about conservation and following strict rules. But of course, that is something you can totally ignore. The way I see it, jazz is a totally open form of music where you can get input from all kinds of music, add a little improvisation and still call it jazz. It’s very free.”

Some critics have tried to pigeonhole Jaga Jazzist as either jazz, electronica or postrock, while others say they are unclassifiable, something that may fill many a record company executive with horror. For Jaga Jazzist, however, this isn’t a problem. “Actually, it’s a help. And it’s totally something we want,” Horntveth says. “That’s our goal when we make music, not to fit into a definite genre. Whenever we feel that one song is easy to categorize, it’s natural for us to change things to get another twist on it. Something that you wouldn’t have expected to come in.”

This will be Jaga Jazzist’s third visit to Japan, and it’s a trip the members are looking forward to. The band plays the International Forum Plaza on Saturday at 7 p.m. as the sole act on the Jazz Cruise Norway program.

“We love playing in Japan mostly because we’ve had such great reactions when we’ve been there before. The audience seems very dedicated. For our last concert in Tokyo, we had to extend our set by 40 minutes. They wanted more. That’s an honor for us,” Horntveth says. “We love the culture, the food, the people we’ve met, the eccentric music and the tiny bars all around. At the Tokyo Jazz Festival we’ll play mostly music from our last album “One-Armed Bandit” and probably some new music.”

Jazz constantly evolves and reinvents itself, absorbing new ideas and influences along the way. While some artists may have raised concerns about the image of the genre, Bruut!’s Rolff ends on an optimistic note.

“Jazz will have a great future because it will develop through time as society will,” he says. “In the end there is always a need for quality so people will come back to handmade music. We’re looking forward to seeing what the future will bring, especially with this new generation of young, innovative jazz musicians that are currently mixing all kinds of styles.”

That’s a hope that could have come from any pop star, too.

The Tokyo Jazz Festival takes place Sep 7-9 at Tokyo International Forum Hall A, Tokyo International Forum Plaza and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (starting times and ticket prices vary). For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.tokyo-jazz.com