Though many postmodern jazz musicians are tireless experimentalists, they often end up producing interesting concepts more than good music. Pianist, composer and band leader Hiroshi Minami, however, is that rare jazz musician who sets up intriguing musical challenges that feel natural. He plays an engaging postmodern style that achieves that elusive jazz ideal — an authentic voice all of its own.
Last year’s release, “Celestial Inside,” found Minami and his Go There quartet at ease in their own brand of exuberant postmodern jazz. As on his other recordings over the last 10 years, Minami’s way of positioning concepts, compositions and musicians yields a very creative friction and intriguing jazz.
Though he plays regularly in Tokyo’s many jazz clubs, Minami’s restless attitude led him to work on remixes of several of the tracks from “Celestial Inside” with synthesized sounds, overdubbed rhythm tracks and DJ collaborations. He also began performing outside the often trad-minded jazz world, bringing his group to play on bills with other edgy, postmodern “jazz” groups around Tokyo.
Minami has also explored the world outside Japan. After earning diplomas from Tokyo College of Music and Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he settled in Tokyo, but kept an ear turned toward Europe. Minami has often traveled there to collaborate with musician friends in Germany and Denmark, inviting them here just as often. As a regular member of Danish trumpeter Kasper Tranberg’s group, he travels across the globe to jam in the vibrant Copenhagen jazz scene. Most recently, he has played and recorded with Cuban powerhouses: drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and bassist Carlos del Puerto (of Irakere fame). Hernandez and del Puerto are two of the most sought-after session musicians in New York and in their native Havana. This newest project, though, isn’t Latin jazz, but a recording of Minami’s originals, mainly ballads, which he wrote for their first-time trio and a string ensemble. The CD will be released in September.
Minami recently took time between sets at a gig at the Shinjuku Pit Inn, and later by e-mail and phone, to talk about the many hats he so comfortably wears.
Your new CD has such great Latin players, but isn’t in Latin jazz style.
Right. Though Horacio and Carlos are best known for their Latin and South American playing, we stayed with slow, mellow ballads. I wanted some Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn feeling with a hint of samba, but mainly the ballad sound. Horacio has great power, but he also plays quiet brushes as well. I found he had great sensitivity, and really can do anything.
How did you write the tunes for this CD?
Well, I’m not Antonio Carlos Jobim. I usually start with a note [laughs]. Anyway, deadlines usually find me twisting in front of the piano. It’s rare to write from beginning to end, so I just move back and forth, finding unexpected and interesting things. When I write for my regular group, Go There, it’s easier because I can imagine easily what each person’s sound is, and I know what they are able to do and also what they want to do.
How do you manage that balance between being wild and very controlled?
I think the Japanese jazz scene could be classified into either straight-ahead bebop jazz or free-form jazz. I think there is no middle concept between these two styles. So, we need a postmodern jazz concept. Every art form has a developed postmodern idea except for the Japanese jazz scene. I think my own postmodern conception produces a kind of balance in my playing.
Postmodernism aside, how would you describe your music?
Well, really I want to create jazz that has intelligence, modesty and a sense of cool. Before bop, everyone danced to jazz, like with Count Basie, but after John Coltrane musicians played as intensely as possible. They started to express their libido, like this [screams]. So, I want some of that expression, and maybe the same basic concept as bebop, but well-dressed music that the audience can really sit down and listen to.
How did you make all these connections with European musicians?
I met Kasper Tranberg in Boston when I was in Berklee. We were both studying abroad, so we became best friends. When we both went back to our own countries, we kept in touch. A few years later, I went to Copenhagen to make a CD with him and then organized a tour in Japan. But it took five years.
I think jazz is the U.S.’s most interesting and international cultural form. Whether you are Asian, American or European, as long as you know how to play in an ensemble with the jazz concept, you can create music. Playing music is the fastest way to communicate. On the other hand, the music itself comes from our own minds. The Danish way of thinking is totally different from Japanese. So the difference in backgrounds creates a spark in the sound and the music. That is the most important aspect when we play together.
Can you tell me about the Go There quartet?
When I chose the members for my band, I chose lone wolves. To make postmodern music, I need that type of player. Hiroaki Mizutani [bass] is a member of Yoshihide Otomo’s New Jazz Quintet, and plays in many other different kinds of bands. Yasuhiro Yoshigaki [drums] is a very unique, free-minded person. He is a drummer but at the same time he is a producer. Masakuni Takeno [alto and tenor saxes] has been playing tons of studio sessions, like pop or rock. I need a sax player who knows many kinds of music and how to approach them. Memorizing a lot of standard tunes is not the most important thing in a postmodern group. They approach my compositions in different ways, so I never feel bored.
You have mentioned that you liked to read Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller. Do literature and jazz connect in your opinion?
If I were not a pianist, I would want to spend my life like them. In that sense, not only their way of living as artists, but also all their books have influenced my life. So my music automatically is influenced by their words.
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