More than meets the ear

Jazz haunts filled to the brim with quality

by Michael Pronko

There’s just not enough time to write up every good jazz band in Tokyo. As the year draws to an end, I find myself with a backlog of quality musicians who play regularly in the capital. So, in order not to leave out any great picks, here’s a Christmas list for your listening pleasure. These players’ unique styles all offer something unusual. They are in the jazz tradition, but not quite of the jazz tradition. These groups work primarily with their own compositions, but also give standards a fresh overhaul. They all have recently released recordings, but are not studio bands. These are working bands who take their innovative music into live houses on a weekly, if not nightly, basis.

Three of the edgiest, quirkiest acts that provoke strong audience reactions are the bands Mull House and Bozo, and saxophonist Eiichi Hayashi. Mull House is led by guitarist Akihiro Ishiwatari, whose guitar has a distinctive fingering, miking and amping combination that produces a very idiosyncratic sound. This amalgamated style blends well with the hard-edged electric support from the rest of the quintet. Their recordings capture Ishiwatari’s compositions in forms that are both up- and off-beat. They mix funk, free jazz, blues and punk into their high-energy brew of startling, intriguing music.

Bozo has just released its first CD, and it’s exceptionally good. Leader and saxman Kenta Tsugami writes most of the tunes, which take an introspective approach to jazz. The quartet never rushes through its pieces, but plays with a stately, even-handed drive, pegged in place by pianist Hiroshi Minami. The members draw elements from bop and post-bop, creating a tight, interactive ensemble feel. The most distinctive element of their music is the internal space and serenity they achieve, seemingly without effort.

Eiichi Hayashi has little time for anything soothing or reflective. He is brash, intelligent, provocative and angry. His buzz-saw style of sax cuts through pretense, polish and the very grain of the songs. Hayashi has played with many bands around town for the past 10 years, but he has been the frontman on his recent recordings, including several free-style records. He currently leads his own trio and quartet, which both dispense with the nice, soothing harmonies and go straight for the melodies.

For funkiness, check out the tight arrangements and superb musicianship of trombonist Yoichi Murata and guitarist Yosuke Onuma. Murata leads two bands: Solid Brass, whose membership fluctuates between eight and 10, and a funk quintet. Solid Brass, which features drums and occasional vocals or guitar, delivers full-on, festive versions of Murata’s own compositions alongside arrangements of songs from Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. His quintet, which often lists itself simply as “Funk Night,” is the funkiest jazz group in town.

Onuma and bandmates Yuta Kaneko, on organ, and Hidenobu Otsuki, on drums, play with good-time ferocity. Onuma writes most of the band’s music, but also arranges a diverse selection of songs from artists including the Isley Brothers, Prince, Ornette Coleman and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What their songs reflect is a love of rhythmic interplay and attention to lyrical melodies. Onuma effortlessly guides his guitar from chunky chords to breezy single-note flows. With occasional guest bass players and saxophonists, like his friend Ken Ota, the core guitar-organ-drum trio really know how to bring the clubs to full boil.

Rough-and-ready jazz steeped in bop is the specialty of three of the best bands in Tokyo — The Most, the Joh Yamada Trio and the Shigeo Aramaki Group. The Most has several recordings to date, each of them excellent collections of straight-ahead jazz. Sax player Seiji Tada does most of the writing, but drummer Masahiko Osaka, bassist Shin Kamimura and pianist Akira Ishii — who all have their own projects — also contribute. The complex compositions give each member a chance to solo at length, which is the band’s forte. They all know how to draw out the implications of the songs they write, turning them into extended, intricate works. Even though The Most is essentially a band of soloists, the members never overindulge their polished technique, and always add solid support and intriguing textures during others’ solos.

Shigeo Aramaki’s tough, muscular bass playing has provided a center of gravity for many Tokyo bands. Now, he’s formed his own. His group works in a loose, Charles Mingus-style of riff-oriented jazz. The players aren’t afraid of having a good time by pounding out blues or challenging themselves by pushing free-form explorations to the breaking point. With Aramaki’s bass shouldering the group, saxophonist Takeuchi Nao and drummer Tamaya Honda can follow melody lines and rhythmic forms with tremendous leeway. They are currently recording “Changes One,” but will return to the club scene next month with a new album in hand.

Saxophonist Joh Yamada is a favorite of many jazz lovers in Tokyo. His charisma is backed up by exceptional chops. He has appeared with many local groups, but it’s with his recently formed trio and quintet that he really ignites the full burners on numbers from sax masters Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, among others. While many musicians end up drawing their energy from the examples set by those players, Yamada manages something quite different. He infuses the original pieces with his own understanding and technical approach. Instead of simply interpreting them, his improvisational lines create them anew.

This list is far from exhaustive, but can serve as a set of good excuses to escape bonnenkai obligations and get into some good music.