You could call Seigen Ono a connoisseur of sound. He chooses only the finest sonic ingredients and knows exactly how to obtain them. As an avant-garde jazz composer and guitarist, he might not be a household name, but check out the credits on some of the best records of the last two decades and there’s a good chance you’ll find him. As a much-respected sound engineer and producer, Ono has worked with everyone from Miles Davis to Puffy, the Kronos Quartet to Glay.
Chatting in rapid-fire English in his basement studio in Jingumae, this 45-year-old artist has the casual stylishness of the naturally fashionable, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did, after all, provide the music to Comme des Garcons’ Paris shows for much of the late ’80s.
Along with Comme’s designer Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ono was a key part of that surge of creativity that propelled contemporary Japanese fashion and culture onto the world stage. His first records were released not in Japan but abroad, and his first shows were at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Ono spent much of the ’80s in New York, collaborating with downtown artists such as John Zorn and Arto Lindsay, and the ’90s in Brazil. He counts influential Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso among his close friends.
His new album, “Seigen Ono Septet 2003 Live at the Blue Note,” which comprises songs covering most of his career, was recorded in Tokyo with Japanese musicians, but it is very much a musical travelogue. “Green Chinese Table” is all downtown New York’s chaotic swing, leavened by Michael Nyman-like repetition. Other tracks amplify Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy vibe, while a cut like “Malu” has a South American samba sway.
The release highlights not only Ono’s extensive knowledge of acoustics and instrumentation, but also his desire to capture the alchemy of a live performance. The new album is a hybrid recording. It can be played as a regular CD, but was recorded in Super Audio format. The difference is akin to hearing a song live and to hearing one on the radio. Listening to the Super Audio version, the floor palpitates with the drummer’s beat; fingers can be heard sliding up the guitar’s fret board.
Ono has the same high standards in his other passion: food. A vocal adherent of “slow food,” an Italian-born global movement that emphasizes regional and seasonal food, Ono gets just as excited about different grades of olive oil as he does about alto sax players.
You are crazy about food and you are crazy about music. What is the connection?
Any producer, designer, chef or musician who wants to produce something from their heart, from their experience, must chose the right material. Without a certain kind of lemon or cheese or olive oil, a chef cannot guarantee that the dish will equal the taste he has conceived of in his mind.
My conception of music is the same. In my mind, if I hear an alto sax, I know that for this recipe or composition, I need John Zorn. He cannot be replaced. I know for another piece, I need [Hidenori] Midorikawa. For this septet, I needed these six guys. That’s why it is called Septet 2003 because maybe next year they won’t be available, the same as it might not be a good year for a grape or a wine depending on the weather.
Did you start out at as a guitar player?
Not professionally. I was like every other junior high school student, just dabbling. I used to listen to a lot of music growing up in Kobe, but I have a hard time categorizing music. At that time, music in record stores was only divided into two groups: Japanese pops and international music. A to Z. Rolling Stones and Miles Davis and Paul Simon all together. Now to find a record at Tower Records, you have to know what area to find it in: jazz, world music, etc. . . . But at that time, there were no categories.
Around the age of 18 or 20, I began to realize what was rock and what was jazz. But eventually I came back to the same conclusion: Categorizing music has no meaning. What is important is the person making the sound. Lots of musicians just perform, they don’t compose. Still, they come up with their own understanding, their own sound. A composition is like a movie script. If the performer is good, you will have a great performance.
You’ve talked about composing and how you think about composing. When you meet with the members of your septet, do you talk to them about what you were thinking or feeling when you wrote the music or what you’d like the ambience of the music to be?
No. I know what each of them can do. When I choose the musician, then my job is done. Fresh fish you can eat as sashimi. You don’t need to add anything, maybe just a little salt or soy sauce. You don’t want to destroy the fresh taste. French, Italian and Japanese cooking are all concerned about how to keep the freshness of the ingredients. Then the combination is important. When you put them together, it isn’t the flavor of the olive oil or the cheese or the lemon, it is something new.
Musically, I know what will happen when I put these musicians together. I have a written score for them but most of it is open, there is lots of space. Space is most important for musicians. The musician reads the score, but my score is very simple, just notations. For some parts I sing to them exactly what I want one person to play. The other musicians know what he will play, but it is up to them what to play on top.
Do you rehearse?
Not really. We met together for two days, six hours, but it wasn’t really rehearsal for practice, but for organization, to make sure everyone knows what is going to happen next, to know who will get the cue.
So you are cuing people during the live performance? Do you ever change the cues?
Sure. Sometimes I even write a question mark to make them concentrate. It is dangerous to have too many rehearsals. Many Japanese bands rehearse all the time. I hate this. If you practice too much, then you are not exciting on stage, you need tension, especially for experienced musicians. So at the rehearsal we don’t practice, we leave it up to the live experience, maybe I cut this or we repeat this. I leave it up to chance.
It seems like a paradox that you are so interested in the chemistry of the live experience, but you are also an engineer. Even your so-called studio recordings are actually recordings of live performances in the studio.
It’s a totally different job. A chef becomes a three-star Michelin chef by knowing how to choose fish, how to prepare it, all of the technical matters from the purchase to the plate. Engineering is the same. After 25 years as an engineer, I have no questions about engineering. An engineer who does engineering for jazz or classical music who doesn’t know the science of instruments — not just EQs, but acoustic theory — cannot ultimately capture a good sound. I was lucky because I studied musical instruments by myself and I knew a little about composition and notations, then I was hired as an assistant engineer when I was 20.
Your name is really associated with the time period when Japanese creators really became recognized by the world: YMO, Rei Kawakubo. . . .
In 1987, Rei Kawakubo asked me to make music that would make her clothes more beautiful. Most of the time, when critics go to fashion shows, they run from show to show and they get bored. There is the same music at all the shows, whatever is trendy. Kawakubo wanted something that people had never heard before, so that automatically meant composing new music. I asked what kind of music she wanted or what kind of show she would have, but she couldn’t really show me. The show would be four or six months in the future and it would be completely different from the shows before so she didn’t really want me to look at old videos. So she showed me the fabric that she would use, I would see it and touch it. Maybe it was red, maybe it was South American, so I imagined and we had the same directions.
Working with Kawakubo or Sadao Watanabe, did this community of creators feel as if something special was happening?
At that time, it was maybe an avant-garde style. There wasn’t a lot of criticism the way there is now. People didn’t really try to understand what others were doing. They just did whatever they believed in. Even Kawakubo didn’t know what her clothes would look like in six months. Me too. But we had a direction; we followed the same vector. Then six months later people could see it for the first time and say “wow!”
With YMO, no one was really using a computer besides Kraftwerk. YMO is kind of the Japanese Kraftwerk, using Japanese melodies and computers. Unfortunately, I never really listened to YMO so I don’t have any of their records. But you can always hear them in taxi cabs.
Your music is slightly more radical than theirs. You hear YMO in taxis because it is using a new medium, but it’s easy to digest. Musically, you have a much closer relationship with the downtown New York scene.
Yes, that is my second home. In the 1980s I was going there all the time. In 1984, Arto Lindsay and John Zorn came to Tokyo for their first visit. Toshinori Kondo invited them. I was hired to record them and also to do the tour engineering because I could set up the instruments and amplifiers. Now John Zorn speaks fluent Japanese. He became a sort of professor of anime, but at that time he couldn’t really say anything, except maybe how to talk to girls. I couldn’t speak any English at all, but we managed to communicate enough to make records. Then I was asked to produce the Lounge Lizards in 1985. In this time I began to get a reputation as an engineer based in Tokyo who was convenient to use, especially for live recordings. I even got jobs through agencies: Manhattan Transfer, Joe Jackson. And every time, I got to study the music.
You also have a strong connection with the Brazilian scene.
In the ’70s I bought a few bossa nova records, but it wasn’t really enough to make me crazy for Brazilian music. In the late ’80s to ’90s, Sadao Watanabe really got me fired up about Brazilian music because he took me to Brazil in 1985, but before that I had become crazy for Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
What attracted you to that music?
Caetano’s voice. That is what first got me interested in Brazilian culture and music. His voice is not male or female; it is very special. Then I became interested in Portuguese, in the way it sounds, the passion. Arto introduced me to one of my best friends in Brazil, a sansei Brazilian journalist, around 1986-87. He knew all these people. And then I met Caetano. He really brought me to Brazil. He was also interested in me as a Japanese composer, about how a Japanese composer can make music like a Brazilian but a Brazilian cannot make music like a Japanese.
You’ve recorded in a lot of different cities — New York, Sao Paolo, Paris, Milan. Does it make a difference?
Of course. All the facilities are totally different. Some studios are a mess. They don’t have the right mikes but you have to get the sound on tape. And the musicians that I work with from a certain country automatically change the sound. You can ask a group of Brazilian musicians to do a New York style, but it will still end up sounding like a bunch of Brazilian musicians. But my melody, the sound, ends up like this record, it ends up Japanese.
But do you really think of your music as Japanese?
Well, I am Japanese so of course it must be Japanese music. My band is 100 percent Japanese, but my background is from traveling around. In my recipe the left channel might be French and the right channel might be Italian. Because I like and spent time in New York, maybe you can hear New York in the melody.
Was it strange to play in Japan for the first time in 2000?
No, I wasn’t nervous at all. But during the introduction [of the first piece] I could see what sort of audience it was. I could tell they were really nervous, even in a bar where they could drink. So I decided to see how long they could stay tense, how long could we stretch out the introduction, one key, one chord. They got really, really tense, then we went to the melody and they relaxed.
So for this album, I decided I needed to do a more relaxed concert, all known songs. The only new song was “Maria Ten.”
How was it to listen to your own songs again? Did you find that the songs had changed over the years?
Yeah, some of them have been recorded many times. “Malu,” for example, has been recorded maybe four or five times, including once on a street organ.
You are very generous as a band leader in giving space to your players. Listening to the album, one would think that you were the sax player, not the guitarist.
Unfortunately I can’t play as a professional musician. I can read and write music, but I can’t play as I want.
Still one thinks of conductors or composers as having a lot of ego, of wanting to always be front and center.
Yes, but remember these are all 100 percent my compositions.
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