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If it ain’t got that swing, it’s still jazz

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Looking back on 2013, I think some of the strongest jazz releases I heard were from young people in the industry. I know, it’s a bit too far into the new year to be retrospective, but it has led me to consider the possibility for a jazz renaissance of sorts in Japan.

The scene here is often seen as being on the decline: The main fan base is aging and nostalgia seems to be restricted to Showa Pop. Bar owners I’ve spoken to tend to stand by that old Duke Ellington line, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” To qualify as jazz, it seems the music has to have the swing and groove of classic 1950s and ’60s sounds or should involve standards from the Great American Songbook.

The jazz net has been expanding for a while, though, and plenty of artists in Japan fall into new subgenres that, inspired by groundbreaking acts such as the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, draw on rock, techno or classical music influences that incorporate the arrangements and spirit of jazz.

The Ai Kuwabara Trio Project, Trisonique, Takashi Matsunaga and Re-Trick are a few acts that last year were characterized by complex yet accessible tunes featuring highly technical musical performances. The main complaint I hear from old-school die-hard fans is that these newer acts just don’t swing in the way that “true” jazz should. It’s worth pointing out that Ai Kuwabara and Trisonique’s Hakuei Kim have both gone on record as saying they don’t want their music to be categorized as jazz per se, hoping to keep it “borderless.” This doesn’t change the fact their records are promoted as jazz by the labels, stores and critics.

Genre labels have always been the bane of the indie scene, a new artist doesn’t need a potential listener dismissing their music because they associate a certain label with something negative, but perhaps these artists would do better in claiming the “jazz” label and refashioning its meaning.

For more than a decade, Tokyo Zawinul Bach, led by keyboard player Masayasu Tzboguchi, has been making its own brand of electro-jazz. Electronic music with its programmed beats and jazz with its on-the-spot instrumentation may not be obvious bedfellows, but Tokyo Zawinul Bach keeps the syncopated rhythms typical of jazz, which makes for a great live show.

Also mixing jazz and electronica, Hex, led by DJ & producer Toshio Matsuura (ex-United Future Organization), released its stylish eponymous debut album at the tail end of 2013. It featured a compelling blend of electronics and live instrumentation on music that ranged from full-on electronica that which used more conventional song structures. That was one of the reasons it stood out as fresh and innovative, particularly as it was released on the Japanese wing of the legendary Blue Note label.

It’s not just electronica where room for growth is possible. Another Japanese artist who will be appearing on Blue Note is New York-based trumpeter Takuya Kuroda. His new album, “Rising Son,” is out from Feb. 12 and incorporates hip-hop, soul and afrobeat influences. The album has jazz at its core, but is very much jazz for a modern, urban generation.

So where exactly is jazz in 2014? These diverse sub-styles have one thing in common and that is taking from other genres and transforming those sounds through the use of new arrangements and instrumentation, or by adding improvisation. A generation that has grown up with the Internet — and access to almost every type of music ever recorded — is bound to redefine what came before.

Rather than getting hung up on the somewhat prevalent “this is jazz, that ain’t jazz” debate, fans should be celebrating a variety of choices — a luxury that previous generations didn’t have the chance to enjoy.