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Young and swingin’

Ego-Wrappin’ take 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 the archipelago.

In contrast to the smooth, mainstream style of heartthrob crooners like Toku (profiled in the last Japan Beat), the focus for groups like PE’Z, Phat, and Ego-Wrappin’ is first and foremost on the groove. All three bands can swing like there’s 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 successful—astoundingly so for a purely instrumental band—are PE’Z. 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, PE’Z—with their goatees and porkpie hats—have brought the sounds of swinging modern jazz to a new generation. What was once the preserve of Japan’s aging salaryman and musty jazz cafes is hip once more, and the band’s first full-length album, last September’s Kugatsu no Sora (World Apart), proved the point by debuting on Japan’s Oricon charts at #10, the highest debut ever by a new instrumental band.

PE’Z’s 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 PE’Z 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 PE’Z, 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 Boston’s world-leading jazz institute, Berklee College of Music. And also like PE’Z, Phat forged a word-of-mouth reputation jamming on the streets. But unlike that band, Phat’s sound is influenced more by electronica and the experimental approach of units like America’s 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 Japan’s rock clubs, even appearing at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2001. Their latest and third release, meanwhile, was last summer’s Night Food, on Polydor.

Phat play Shibuya Club Quattro on March 6. See listings for details.

credit: Liquid Room