The hip-hop world suffered a huge shock in 2010 when the death of Jun Seba (aka Nujabes) was announced. Five years since his death, it would be fitting to reflect on and pay tribute to Nujabes’ sensational musical flair.

His music epitomised hip-hop’s core musical values: tasteful cool-jazz inflections, compelling rhythmic patterns and beautiful melodic riffs soaked through his sonic palette. While his sound is brimming with instantly recognisable styles (from smooth jazz, rap, even a slight hint of Japanese pentatonic flavours), his musical dexterity to blend many styles together to form spellbinding and catchy tunes makes him an eclectic and original figure in the Japanese music scene.

Nujabes launched his career with his debut album Metaphorical Music, introducing audiences to a refreshing sound world that nourishes the spirit of listeners. While retaining a consistent hip-hop beat idiom, he explores different stylistic avenues to create a potpourri of riveting tunes. ‘A Day by Atmosphere Supreme’ sees an elegant silky piano playing alongside a classic hip-hop beat, spiced up with sporadic bursts of glittering percussion that resemble a peaceful starry night. By contrast, ‘The Final View’ is much more lively affair, with a melodious riff from a tangy oboe-like instrument accompanied by a chordal piano line and reverberant woodblocks, not forgetting a surprise Ornette Coleman-like saxophone solo in the distance.

With the help of an entourage of other artists, his 2005 album Modal Soul is a hip-hop universe of a different kind, with tunes such as ‘Modal Soul’ and ‘Horizon’ taking the spotlight in my opinion. ‘Modal Soul’, featuring the close friend of Nujabes and collaborator Uyama Hiroto navigates the listener through a sonic alley that juxtaposes intricate jazz piano and sax ornaments and funky Samba rhythms with a blanket of ambient overtones and resonances. The album concludes with ‘Horizon’, a 7-minute coda led by some bright ‘Alicia Keys-style’ jazz piano playing seasoned with wispy synth pads.

Spiritual State, Nujabes’ posthumous album is a farewell gift sewn up by some of his close collaborators while preserving the spirit of Nujabes. Perhaps this record is the most musically inventive and radical of Jun Seba’s output, as this 14-chapter musical novel delves into genres and styles that have never before been encountered by him. From Eastern European accents in ‘Far Fowls’, classic bebop/cool jazz drum figures in ‘Sky is Tumbling’ and rejuvenating Latin and Mediterranean flavours over a Boyz II Men-esque beat in ‘Island’, Spiritual State is a salute to one of Japan’s most respected artists.

His refined musical craft, and the meticulous attention he gives to every tune has made Nujabes a universally loved figure. His music is life affirming, a voyage, and an experience.

Other Listening:

  • Light on the Land
  • Peaceland
  • Who’s Theme
  • Latitude

© Isaku Takahashi