大友義秀 – Otomo Yoshihide

Taking a slightly acute musical angle for this next post.

Otomo Yoshihide cropped up while cleaning up and organising the vast CD collection in my house, and I remember picking up one of his albums from my uncle’s office in Japan (he works for a local classical music record company and invited me to his office to take as many CDs from their ‘unwanted’ collection of records). Oblivious to what Otomo had in stall, I noticed it contained the word ‘jazz’, so thought it would be interesting to hear a Japanese perspective on the classic American genre.

I realise that this artist would perhaps not be generalised as ‘J-Pop’, but it would be worthwhile to talk about Otomo’s creative response in the Japanese music scene, as he is a true reflection of avant-garde practice and the idea of challenging the sonic boundaries of popular music in Japan.

Otomo, a multi-instrumentalist, has worked in an array of musical contexts, composing in jazz and electronic mediums to improvisation and contemporary classical aesthetics to form a vast bricolage of creative works and albums. I aim to examine just a small branch of his sonic expeditions.

The first Otomo record I stumbled upon was his album Tails Out by his group New Jazz Quintet. Not only does it assert the relevance and importance of jazz in the late 20th/21st century, but also this unique body of music throws a musical curveball, breaking the confines of what people associate as jazz music. The headline track of this album is arguably the fiery concluding number ‘Tails Out’. The meticulous balance between noise  and improvisatory explorations and jazzy melodic inflections, particularly from the trumpet and various saxophones makes this 13-minute musical labyrinth a compelling act to conclude the album.

To continue my venture into the weird and wonderful sound world of Otomo, I went back a year to listen to his 2002 album Dreams by his band New Jazz Ensemble. The tracks that stood out for me were ‘Years’ and ‘Good Morning’. The sonic language of both tracks was reminiscent of the free-flowing, minimalist nature of Sigur Ros (e.g. the perpetual electric guitar strumming and the slow gradual build-up in instrumental colour and texture). To counter the gentle harmonic waves and indolent nature of Phew’s vocals, the schizophrenic quality of the trumpet and sax surprises the listener with some riotous, discordant solo patterns. It’s breezy ballad accompaniment braided with distorted, atonal experimentation.

Otomo has also been heavily involved in composing music for films. The soundtrack to Blue is an example of his masterful handling of various stylistic traits and compositional tools to paint a musical scenery to the film. Predominantly based around the idyllic sweet melody from the recorder-like flute, Otomo expands the sonic palette to create a set of variations on the theme. The actual film contains very little of the soundtrack, so while this album can not only stand as a musical portrait of the film, but it can also act as an independent body of art that can stir emotion without the aid of a filmic narrative.

These are just a couple of musical directions Otomo has taken in his career. It is worth exploring this innovative artist in more detail if you want to be immersed in Otomo’s creative actions to full capacity.

Other Listening:

  • Cathode
  • Episome
  • New Jazz Orchestra – Out to Lunch

© Isaku Takahashi

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