Wonk plays around with ‘experimental soul’ on a pair of new albums

by

Special To The Japan Times

“The way music from America and other Western countries got imported into Japan, the roots are different,” says Ayatake Ezaki, keyboardist for Tokyo-based quartet Wonk.

“In Japan, hip-hop is hip-hop, jazz is jazz, soul is soul — that’s how they’ve been received,” he continues. “But in actual fact, they’re more connected than that. There’s more interplay. I think you could say that our generation is the first that’s finally able to appreciate black music the way it should be understood.”

That’s a bold claim, but Wonk’s music backs it up. The group — which also comprises singer Kento Nagatsuka, bassist Kan Inoue and drummer Hikaru Arata — moves fluidly from sampler-driven beat instrumentals to sultry neo-soul and uptempo acid jazz, incorporating guest spots by rappers and jazz musicians alike.

It’s the kind of cavalier, genre-fluid approach that has become commonplace overseas but is still comparatively rare in Japan.

The music industry doesn’t seem sure what to make of them. Wonk’s 2016 debut, “Sphere,” won the CD Shop Awards prize for best jazz album and the band recently played at Tokyo Jazz Festival. But don’t let all that give you the wrong idea.

“We’re definitely not jazz,” Arata says. The members prefer the term “experimental soul band,” and their website positions the group as the vanguard of “Japan’s black music scene” — a phrase that makes me go cross-eyed every time I read it.

Barely a year after releasing “Sphere,” Wonk is back with not one but two new albums. “Castor” captures the band at its brightest and most accessible, while placing Nagatsuka’s mellifluous vocals center stage. Its counterpart, “Pollux,” is more sonically adventurous, featuring a welter of guests including singer Kim Mayo, of New York future-soul outfit The Love Experiment, and Okinawan rapper Ritto.

“With the last album, there were vocal numbers, then there was stuff that was more hip-hop, kind of beat-music style,” Arata says. “Our concept was to divide those into two discs, to kind of show the two sides of the group.”

It’s no accident that the songs on “Castor” sound tailor-made for larger stages. Many of Wonk’s shows this year have been at music festivals, including last month’s Summer Sonic, and its new material feels honed by the experience of performing to bigger crowds.

“We decided this time that we wanted to write songs that would really go off when we played them live,” Ezaki confirms. “We put a lot of thought into our set lists for each gig. If we’re playing a late-night club event, we’ll do more of the beat-driven stuff, while if we’re on an outdoor stage in the middle of the day, we’re going to stick more to the yellow album (‘Castor’).”

A cynic might suggest that Wonk is angling for the crossover success of Suchmos, a group it’s frequently compared to. However, the music video for new song “Gather Round” doesn’t seem like a bid for mainstream acceptability. In it, Nagatsuka stumbles groggily through an acid-trip hipster house party, and ends up collapsed outside in a pool of neon-colored vomit.

When I ask if, just maybe, it’s about getting high, the group’s members all laugh.

“I think we’re probably seen as being clean-cut and having a trendy sound,” Arata says. “With that video, we wanted to play around a bit, and mess with the image that we’ve had so far.”

If there’s one thing Wonk doesn’t want to be known as, it’s oshare — an oft-used term that’s variously translated as hip, stylish or trendy.

“Oshare makes us sound like background music,” Inoue says. “I’d like people to listen a little harder than that.”

The quartet’s rapid ascent during the past year may seem slightly less spectacular post-Suchmos, but it’s still impressive for a band that self-releases its music, via its own Epistroph label.

The label name is a twist on “Epistrophy,” the jazz standard by Thelonious Monk. The pianist also inspired Wonk’s moniker (try looking at it upside down), and his face appears on the cover art for “Sphere.”

“It’s not so much about his music as his sensibility,” says Arata, when asked what they have in common. “The things Thelonious Monk did were really messed-up. Sometimes he wouldn’t play the piano or, if he did play, it’d be this enigmatic chord — all this eccentric stuff.”

The next Epistrophy release, a tie-up with Blue Note Records, is a tribute album to mark Monk’s centennial. Ezaki explains that it’s just one of a range of planned releases, including solo projects by Wonk’s members, and music from artists in the group’s extended circle.

“We’re not just looking to get Wonk’s name out there; we want other interesting musicians from our peer group to become famous as well,” he says. As an example, he mentions Soulquarians, the neo-soul collective that counted Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Questlove and J Dilla among its number. “We want to bring everyone up with us.”

Despite Wonk’s newfound popularity at home, the group is still looking beyond Japan. Nagatsuka sings entirely in English — because, as he says, “we want our music to be heard overseas” — and the band played a handful of dates in Europe last winter, with more planned next year.

In an interview around the time “Sphere” was released, the group spoke about becoming a “reverse import” — a band that parlays an international following into success back at home.

“It’s a bit late for that now,” says Arata with a chuckle, but the members still seem mindful of the limits to their potential audience.

“In Japan, with iTunes or Tower Records, if something isn’t classified as ‘rock,’ that really limits its chances of success,” Ezaki says.

Inoue, who seems genuinely surprised by the attention the band is getting at home, concurs: “As soon as we hit the ceiling here, I want to give it a proper shot overseas.”

“Castor” and “Pollux” are out now. Wonk’s album tour kicks off at Club Upset in Nagoya on Sept. 15. For more information, visit www.wonk.tokyo.