Independent route pays off for jazz act Indigo Jam Unit


Special To The Japan Times

Whichever way you look at it, there’s something a little bit different about Indigo Jam Unit. The Osaka-based band has succeeded on its own terms, eschewing the Tokyo club-jazz crowd, but at the same time carving out their own little niche within the scene. They’ve adopted a slightly different approach to their career to date, partly by accident and partly by design, and have consequently established themselves as a band with a distinct sound and image.

The first thing you notice about Indigo Jam Unit is the unconventional lineup — a quartet that is essentially a piano trio with an extra drummer — a quality best appreciated on stage.

While this has come to be something of a trademark feature of the band’s sound, it’s not something that was planned from the outset. Pianist Yoshichika Tarue explains, “Well, initially bassist Katsuhiko Sasai and I were playing in two bands. One featured Isao Wasano on drums and the other was a jazz trio with Takehiro Shimizu on drums. Our first album, Demonstration, was basically the tracks from the two trios recorded separately. It was only after that recording that we decided to become a four piece and it was from the second album that we started to feature some twin drum tracks.”

Unmoved by the attention to sartorial detail adopted by many of the other younger jazz-influenced artists that have emerged in the last decade, Indigo Jam Unit are happy to go on stage in jeans and T-shirts. Essentially, what you see is what you get and this is something that is also mirrored in the recording process with no overdubs or effects added to the tracks.

“When we go into the studio we basically start from nothing and then one of us might come up with a rhythm or a riff and we jam from that and try to build a tune,” Sasai says. “Back in the early days, one of us would come to the studio with a particular tune structure already in mind.”

“That’s right,” Tarue interjects. “For the first couple of albums, either Sasai would have a bass riff or I’d have a piano melody around which we’d build a track, but more recently any one of us might bring a particular idea and we’ll work from that. Wasano will have a drum beat or I’ll have a piano phrase.”

“I’ll come up with a funky a bass riff, and with Shimizu, well just about anything goes,” Sasai says.

“We simply concentrate on making the music,” Tarue continues, “and once the sessions are finished our producer, Kenichi Tateiwa, listens to what we’ve laid down and picks out the parts that could be developed for our albums.”

After that, the recordings are made and Tateiwa listens through and thinks up suitable titles for the tunes. It’s only afterward that the band gets to know about the titles and the running order for the album.

“It’s kind of weird, I know,” Shimizu says, “but by going on tour with the new tracks, we gradually become more and more aware of the association between the music and the titles, and that feeling becomes deeply ingrained.”

In many ways Tateiwa is an unofficial fifth member, overseeing the recording sessions, thinking up the titles, as well as taking care of the business side of things. With “Rebel” as the title of the new album and “Independent” the last, there’s the feeling that both he and the band take some pride in avoiding the oft-trodden route of relocation to Tokyo and signing for a major label.

“Well, at around the time of our first and second albums there were offers from major labels,” Sasai says. “However, the five of us sat down together and discussed what was on the table and decided to carry on as we were.”

“To be honest, it’s not that we’re against the idea of working with a major label,” Tateiwa adds, “but you have to weigh up the pros and cons.”

“When it comes to jazz, if you hit 2,000 sales, it’s considered a hit, and so we were getting offers of trying to reach a sales target of 5,000 and nothing more,” he continues. “But we’ve been able hit more or less double that under our own steam, and when you consider the extra costs involved with a major label, it makes sense to continue independently.

“Of course, with pop music you need the PR and sales power of the majors to get TV and radio air time as well as exposure in the press, but for the music we make, we seem to be able to reach the people who are interested in it simply by doing what we’re doing. And we can do that easily from Osaka.”

Another benefit of sticking to the indie route is that the band has the relative freedom to make fairly quick decisions on what they do. No long drawn-out committee meetings were required to get their music out beyond Japan via the iTunes store, and agreeing to perform on camera for “Tokyo Jazzed Out,” a program shot by the French Mezzo TV channel earlier this year, was also something they were able to set up at very short notice. Though, with deadlines to meet for the album, they did things differently from all the other artists on the show and the TV crew had to shoot the performance in Osaka.

“Rebel” is the band’s eighth original album and as the title suggests, it’s a pretty feisty affair with the accent on frenzied twin-drum numbers and high-powered Latin-flavored tunes.

“Anyone familiar with our live sets will know that the explosive tunes at the climax of our shows come mainly from our second or third album,” Tateiwa says. “For this album, we kind of wanted to overwrite that and create some new tunes that were even more powerful or had an even harder Latin feel to them, ones that would go down well live. So from that point of view ‘Rebel’ is heavier and harder than our previous releases.”

Seven years and eight albums on from the start of their musical journey, Indigo Jam Unit’s musical mission is clearly far from complete.

Indigo Jam Unit plays a New Year’s event at Rough Rare in Kobe on Dec. 31 (10 p.m. start; ¥3, 800 in advance; [078] 333-0808). The group starts its “Rebel” release tour at SR Hall in Kagoshima on Jan. 11, 2013 (8:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; [099] 227-0337). The tour travels to Kumamoto; Fukuoka; Takamatsu, Kagawa Pref.; Okuyama; Hiroshima; Ise, Mie Pref.; Osaka; Sapporo; and Tokyo before ending at Club Quattro in Nagoya on March 2, 2013 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,900 in advance; [052] 264-8211). For more information, visit