New Japanese Vibes (65) – 宮田涼介 Miyata Ryousuke 車窓 (At Car Window)

First post coming from a divided nation plagued by a Brexit hangover (apologies for such an introduction…)

While we can acknowledge the fact that Great Britain is no longer ‘Great’ (thanks to the uneducated citizens and manipulative politicians), no one can deny the enchanting musical offerings Japan has to offer, including宮田涼介 Miyata Ryousuke’s 車窓 (At Car Window) ‘Kurumamado’. Influenced by classical music, childhood memories and healing sensations, ‘Kurumamado’ sends listeners into a tranquil musical trance as it glides away with Ryuichi Sakamoto­-esque melodies and harmonies delicately played by Miyata’s fine fingers.

Other Info/Context

  • Miyata previously performed under the name Miche, and is guitarist of alt-rock band かろうじて人間 Karoujite Ningen.

© Isaku Takahashi

Fujita Masayoshi

Fujita Masayoshi is someone out of the ordinary to come out of Japan. While the Japanese vibraphonist (currently living in Germany) arguably has little connection to the term ‘J-Pop’ in its common use and association, Fujita exhibits a unique sound world that one believes he is someone worth looking into further detail.

As the timbre of the vibraphone would suggest, stillness and serenity are expressions that Fujita plays to his advantage in pieces like ‘Story of Waterfall I & II’ from his 2013 album Stories. Fujita experiments with an array of rich harmonies, rhythmic patterns and contrasting dynamics as the resonant and sumptuous quality of his skilful vibraphone playing meanders through the 11-minute journey at its own leisurely pace, which one cannot help but reminisce a naturalistic landscape before one’s eyes.

Fujita also shares an interest with electronics under his solo project name el fog. Tracks like ‘El Cloud and ‘Own Frequency, Own Time’, from his first album Reverberate Slowly (under the name el fog) are interesting in the sense that while the vibraphone as an instrument could just simply be a medium in which to produce sounds without seducing a particular mood, in this context it takes a different meaning as it tries to submerge the listener in an otherworldly sonic atmosphere. Delicate vibraphone chords and melodies gently float away in both pieces, stirring up a nocturnal feel (a kind of ‘night-pop’ if you will), further emphasised by intricate electronic details from injections of crackles, glitch samples, ambient echoes and bass beats that evoke the musical qualities of dub or IDM.

Moonlight’, from his latest album Apologues sees Fujita employ the use of orchestral instruments (some of who featured in the Stories album) to convey a classical-crossover soundscape with shades of pentatonic inflections. Trills and tremolos from the vibraphone fill the piece with its drone effects as soothing counter melodies from the flute, clarinet and strings weave through the palette, with the strings making a transition into pulsating pizzicatos in the middle and latter section.

Fujita Masayoshi has enlightened listeners across various cultures with his carefully crafted compositions that convey a crystalline and pristine quality that is perhaps so characteristic of the roster of Japanese classical-crossover artists.

Other Listening:

  • Tears Of Unicorn
  • Change Your Life (ft. Jan Jelinek)
  • Snow Storm
  • Mountain Dub

© Isaku Takahashi

Mouse on the Keys

A fusion of rhythmically pulsating minimalism evocative of Philip Glass and the hard-hitting dynamism of jazz, electronic and post-rock styles is perhaps a good way to describe Mouse on the Keys, an exciting and musically challenging nu-jazz trio from Tokyo.

One can draw similarities to them and the UK’s Neil Cowley Trio (for their exploration of colourful harmonies and continuously varying drum line), or the heavy groove of Achim Seifert Project from Germany. Despite sharing stylistic commonalities with other global groups, Mouse on the Keys are unparalleled for the sheer volume of effort and to an extent, muscle they put into their creative enterprise.

The ability to push and pull the harmony, texture, and rhythm is the most impressive thing about Mouse on the Keys. Their EP, Machinic Phylum is a 4-part musical drama that reflects their ability to command the pace and intensity of their sonic domain. ‘Aom’ and ‘Plateau’ radiate forces of rhythmic energy with cyclical piano phrases and their energetic trademark drum beats, while occasionally pulling back the propulsion to make way for ornate minimalist piano solos. ‘Clinamen’ is like an interlude that gives the occasional space for the bass and synths to take a more prominent role. Being the concluding act, and the least musically dynamic, ‘Memory’ is the unsung hero of this EP. The heavenly opening from the main piano riff and iridescent synth harmonies sets the tone for the other instruments. A rhythmically diluted drum and bass accompanies the enchanting, crystalline piano layer, only to end with a polyrhythmic Bach fugue-like phrase, which is perhaps a subtle reminder to the listener of what originally made them a force to be reckoned with.

This Japanese trio are recognised globally not only through their successful international tours, but through their reputation as an artist working with various art forms (e.g. visual installation, film projections, lighting work). This live version of ‘Completed Nihilism’ and ‘Spectres de mouse’ synthesises monochrome, but equally intense abstract imagery with merciless percussive and pianistic textures that fluctuate from gentle cymbal and arpeggio ripples to precision-engineered rhythmic complexity and mathematical harmonic progressions, in an effort to submerge the audience into musical and visual euphoria.

The above songs open their 2009 album An Anxious Object. Regardless of the fact that the titles of each track sounds very abstract and conceptual, the substance is overflowing with a myriad of sensations: groovy piano and percussion in ‘Forgotten Children’ and ‘Unflexible Grids’, sleek reverberant ambience of ‘Ouroboros’ and bright jazzy nuances from ‘Seiren’. From the opening sporadic chordal hits of ‘Dirty Realism’, it is evident that some influences of contemporary classical/post-minimalism have also slipped into the records’ tonal palette, as it sounds similar to Louis Andriessen’s piece Hoketus.

Mouse on the Keys are a musical powerhouse. Its relentless percussion line, varicoloured harmonies, mechanistic piano textures, jazzy but also dissonant and angular improvisatory melodies and rhythms, and their strong visual presence has the energy to sustain a common momentum, and invite the audience into total sonic and visual immersion.

Other Listening:

  • Sezession EP
  • The Arctic Fox
  • The Flowers of Romance (Album)

© Isaku Takahashi

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