Young and swingin
their cue from jazz, cabaret, and the streets of Shibuya
Watchers of the Japanese pop scene will have
noticed something taking shape over the past few years. What
first seemed anomalous is now a distinct trend: swing is cool
again. Influenced by the jam band and club jazz scenes, a
number of young Japanese groups have heads bobbing all over
In contrast to the smooth, mainstream style of heartthrob
crooners like Toku (profiled in the last Japan Beat), the
focus for groups like PEZ, Phat, and Ego-Wrappin
is first and foremost on the groove. All three bands can swing
like theres no tomorrow, and are being booked into rock
venues and festivals alongside straight-ahead rock bands,
or with DJs as part of electronica events.
Perhaps the most successfulastoundingly so for a purely
instrumental bandare PEZ. Formed only in 1999,
the group began their march up the charts from the streets
of Shibuya, where they jammed near the station as often as
twice a week. Centered around the virtuoso trumpet playing
of founder Wataru B.M.W. Ohyama, PEZwith
their goatees and porkpie hatshave brought the sounds
of swinging modern jazz to a new generation. What was once
the preserve of Japans aging salaryman and musty jazz
cafes is hip once more, and the bands first full-length
album, last Septembers Kugatsu no Sora (World Apart),
proved the point by debuting on Japans Oricon charts
at #10, the highest debut ever by a new instrumental band.
PEZs manager at World Apart, Ryuta Moriya, explains
that the trend began to take off in the late 90s. Young
bands started to play jazz after hearing acid jazz DJs in
clubs. Jazz used to have an image as a difficult music, but
bands like PEZ created simple and accessible arrangements.
The big appeal is real people playing real instruments, and
the energy of their live performances as opposed to watching
DJs spin vinyl.
Like PEZ, Phat are built around a lead horn player,
the prodigious saxophonist Daisuke Fujiwara, who created the
band in 1998 after returning from his studies at Bostons
world-leading jazz institute, Berklee College of Music. And
also like PEZ, Phat forged a word-of-mouth reputation
jamming on the streets. But unlike that band, Phats
sound is influenced more by electronica and the experimental
approach of units like Americas Medeski, Martin &
Wood (who they backed in Japan), than by mainstream jazz.
They have been fixture of the ongoing Organic Groove improvisational
music parties, and headline a record release party in March
for their forthcoming new album, Tayutafu, on Toshiba-EMI.
Of the three bands, Ego-Wrappin are surely the most
eccentric. Formed in Osaka in 1996 by guitarist Masaki Mori
and vocalist Yoshie Nakano, the band takes 30s swing
and cabaret music and gives it a distinctive Japonesque
flair that takes its cue from the streets of Shibuya and other
trendy centers of urban youth culture. Ego-Wrappin really
began to take off in 2000 with the release of Shikisai no
Blues (multicolor blues), and soon were a staple of Japans
rock clubs, even appearing at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2001.
Their latest and third release, meanwhile, was last summers
Night Food, on Polydor.
Phat play Shibuya Club Quattro on
March 6. See listings for details.