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‘Vu Ja De’: Fans of Haruomi Hosono are rewarded with a deep dive

by

Contributing Writer

At a recent concert in Tokyo, Haruomi Hosono enlisted a pair of comedy acts to open the proceedings. First stand-up duo Knights did a routine based on mangled misreadings of the headliner’s Wikipedia page, then impersonator Michiko Shimizu and her brother, Ichiro, performed the Happy End song “Aiaigasa” in character as Akiko Yano and, er, Haruomi Hosono.

He may be one of the most revered figures in the Japanese music industry — a veteran of not one, but two of the most influential bands the country has ever produced — but Hosono isn’t about to start taking himself seriously.

There’s an air of nonchalance pervading “Vu Ja De,” his 21st solo album. Spread over two discs yet clocking in at under an hour, it finds him joining the dots in his musical heritage, and seeking fresh inspiration by casting his eye backward.

The title refers to the term — coined by the comedian George Carlin and later championed by Stanford professor Bob Sutton — for seeing something you’ve experienced before as if for the first time. In the album’s extensive liner notes, Hosono ties the concept to his recent exploration of jazz and pop from the 1940s: Music that he’d assumed was familiar until he started trying to play it live and realized “it had been created in a world I knew nothing about.”

The first disc, “Eight Beat Combo,” is devoted to cover versions of golden oldies, including exuberant boogie-woogie versions of “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Tutti Frutti.” Singing in English, Hosono compensates in charisma for what he sometimes lacks in clarity, and gets some superb accompaniment from his regular backing band of guitarist Ren Takada, bassist Wataru Iga and drummer Daichi Ito.

Aside from an unlikely take on Shelby Flint’s “Angel on My Shoulder,” his interpretations are largely faithful to the originals, in sound as well as performance. With a dedication bordering on the quixotic, he produced the album with modern studio gear, but then mixed it to emulate the vibe of vintage recordings that were often captured with a single microphone.

Why go to all that effort? In the liner notes, Hosono — who turned 70 this year — writes that playing covers allows him to forget his age, while his own music doesn’t offer any such relief: “It feels like looking at myself in the mirror after getting out of bed.”

This might explain the slightly cursory feel of the second disc, “Essay,” which scrapes together just under half an hour’s worth of original material. The sultry, rumba-flavored opener, “Suzaki Paradise,” is the only new song here, and the remainder is a curious mix, including music for TV commercials, a radio session duet with singer-songwriter Ichiko Aoba, and Hosono’s take on a song he penned for enka singer Sayuri Ishikawa.

Some of the most intriguing moments are when he revisits earlier material. On “Tenkiame-ni Humming-wo,” he takes an advertising jingle and fleshes it out into a rather lovely bossa nova song. “Retort” reprises a piece that appeared as an instrumental on 1989’s “Omni Sight Seeing,” but this time does it with the vocals he’d originally wanted to include — scratching a 28-year itch, if you will.

Earlier this year, Hosono’s old Yellow Magic Orchestra cohort, Ryuichi Sakamoto, delivered one of the finest albums of his career with “async.” While that record felt like a definitive statement, “Vu Ja De” doesn’t aspire to anything so grand: it’s more like catching up with an old friend.

Listeners who haven’t already delved into Hosono’s extensive back catalog could probably pick better places to start, but dedicated fans will find plenty to savor here.