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No confusion over the way jazz fusion is heading

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Jazz fusion? That’s big hair and flares, right? The genre in which jazz acts go electric and incorporate elements of funk and rock with jazz improvisation, all rolled up into lengthy jams? Well, yes, but only if you’re stuck in the late 1960s or early ’70s.

Perhaps you’re imagining big productions with synths, epic guitar solos and the slap bass that dominated the ’80s instead? That sound proved to be very popular in Japan, and fusion bands such as Casiopeia and T-Square have remained active for more than 35 years, keeping large, faithful followings.

By its very definition, however, fusion embraces a wide range of influences. In the past decade, a number of new acts have emerged with distinctly original sounds that embrace various musical styles and creating new types of fusion.

During the past couple of weeks, two American bands who fall into this category have played gigs in Tokyo — Erimaj and Snarky Puppy.

Led by drummer Jamire Williams (the band’s name is his own spelled backwards), Erimaj says it aims to, “break down the barriers between musical genres.” Taking an experimental yet accessible approach to its music, the band incorporates elements of jazz, R&B, rock and alternative music to create a sound that is both new and compelling — a Radiohead-meets-21st-century-jazz style.

Earlier this week, funky collective Snarky Puppy played a couple of nights at the Blue Note in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. Formed nine years ago by musician, composer and arranger Michael League, the band has gradually grown from a local underground act to become one with a global following.

League uses the label “jafunkadansion” to describe Snarky Puppy’s sound reflecting jazz, funk and dance influences. The band’s reputation has mainly been built on its live performances.

In addition to these acts grabbing the attention of younger followers, there is also a diverse group of new jazz fusion acts in Japan that has helped attract a new generation of listeners here.

Jazz Collective is a quintet led by trombonist Hirose Takao. Rooted firmly in club culture rather than the traditional jazz circuit, the band effortlessly blends elements of jazz, funk, Brazilian, house and techno to create a dancefloor-friendly sound.

Last year’s self-titled debut was one of my highlights of the year and I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Word has spread overseas, with DJs and radio stations in Europe picking up several of the album’s tracks.

Jazz Collective released a followup this spring titled “Prelude,” which continues to explore crossover sounds and for the first time features tracks with guest vocalists as the band seeks to expand its appeal.

Aquapit, on the other hand, is a band born out of the more traditional jazz-club circuit, and its music is a more conventional fusion of organ jazz and funk with occasional hints of rock or club sounds.

The trio is something of a supergroup, with all three members established musicians and band leaders in their own right. The band was formed by organist Yuta Kaneko in 1997, and currently features renowned guitarist Yosuke Onuma and drummer Hidenobu “Kalta” Otsuki. After releasing its debut album in 2001, the group was dormant for a decade as the members pursued their own projects.

Aquapit is back, though, with its latest album, “Orange,” released last month. The trio will also be taking its music on the road, with a nationwide tour coming up in July that will definitely be worth catching.

Taking yet another musical path, Fox Capture Plan plays what it describes as a modern version of jazz rock. The members of the band also work separately on very different musical projects and this is perhaps reflected in the various musical influences the group cites, including artists as diverse as Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Burt Bacharach and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Together the trio’s sound is a meeting of contemporary jazz and postrock and is characterized by a big, bold sound with infectious melodies and thumping rhythms in a similar vein to Britain’s Neil Cowley Trio or GoGo Penguin. Like Jazz Collective, Fox Capture Plan have attracted attention overseas earning valuable radio airplay on specialist radio stations, and appear to have a promising future ahead of them.

Given the traditional associations with the label “jazz fusion,” it may well be that this new generation of artists would shy away from actually using the term “fusion” to describe their music. However, they are all consciously making music that blends diverse musical styles with jazz to create something new, marking the kind of innovation that has helped jazz develop throughout its long history.