Young guns PE'Z bring swing to a new generation.
|(l to r) Wataru "B.M.W"
Ohyama, Kousuke "Jaw" Kadota, Hiizumimasayu-Ki,
Masahiro Nirehara and Kou
Ever since Tanizaki wrote his 1920s jazz-age novel Naomi,
Japan has had its share of aspiring jazz musicians. These
days, the country regularly packs off its prodigies to be
forged into professionals at places like America's
Berklee College of Music.
But how many young Japanese jazz musicians can ever really
hope to make a living playing jazz, not to mention packing
halls like Liquid Room on successive nights, as PE'Z
did at the beginning of December? Catching the last of their
four gigs on December 5, I hoped, would reveal some clues
into the remarkable appeal of this instrumental band.
Yet listening to PE'Z play to a sell-out crowd reveals
nothing radically unusual about the young quintet. With roots
in modern jazz, PE'Z swing nicely along beneath the
hummable melodies of bandleader and trumpeter, Wataru "B.M.W."
Ohyama. Hints of ska, Latin and fusion lend the band a contemporary
edge, but there's nothing revolutionary about PE'Z.
"It's their connection with their audience,"
offers publicist Mina of management company World apart.,
to my question midway through the show. She seems to be on
to something: when B.M.W. begins to recount a tale from his
junior high school days between songs, he's got the
mostly college-age crowd in the palm of his hands. PE'Z,
it seems, have reconnected a new generation to jazz by making
it something young people can relate to, and rendering newly
accessible what had become an elitist music for goatee-stroking
artsy types and wealthy, older businessman.
This attempt to deliver jazz to a new audience was deliberate,
said B.M.W. backstage before the show. "We simply wanted
to be heard by as many young people as possible," he
says of their decision to launch their career in the streets
of Shibuya in the summer of 2000. Rather than consigning themselves
to playing tiny jazz clubs for audiences you can count on
two hands-the fate of many jazz bands-PE'Z
were soon drawing crowds several hundred strong on word of
"We wanted to try out our music on listeners of rock
and punk, so we decided to aim for live houses rather than
jazz clubs," B.M.W. continues. With the backing of
World apart., they began to play rock clubs, releasing a string
of EPs starting with their first mini-album, PE'Z,
which rocketed to the top of Japan's indies charts
in the winter of 2001, and sells well even now.
A PE'Z show has the feeling of a rock concert, with
fans cheering wildly between songs and dancing with abandon
to drummer Kou and bassist Masahiro Nirehara's elastic
grooves. The scene is a familiar one to anyone who has gone
to concerts by bands like America's Medeski, Martin
& Wood, and, not surprisingly, PE'Z find support
in Japan's fertile jam/improv band scene.
Currently in the public eye thanks to their song "Dry!Dry?Dry!"
for an Asahi Super Dry beer commercial, PE'Z toss off
the song at the opening of their show, but then quickly move
on to some of the more intriguing material from their brand-new
album, KIWAMARI ZUKI, their second full-length since signing
At this writing No. 6 on HMV's Japanese charts, the
album takes PE'Z in some new directions, with an emphasis
on Latin rhythms and one track that features a shamisen part.
"This time we wanted to do something different,"
says B.M.W., who composes most of the music with keyboardist
Hiizumimasayu-Ki. "We'd been pretty much following
the same process through last summer's mini-album,
and wanted to try out some new directions as much as possible."
While the Latin time signatures and guitar and shamisen parts
indicate a new confidence among the members of PE'Z,
they've stuck wisely to their template, which has one
key difference from most modern jazz. Rather than state a
melody, and then proceed into solos by each band member, trumpeter
B.M.W., keyboardist Hiizumi and sax player Kousuke "Jaw"
Kadota, sustain their melodies throughout, keeping one's
attention from beginning to end.
With the Japanese market now well aware of PE'Z's
charms, the next obvious move is overseas, where groups like
the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have established an audience
for hip young Japanese brass bands. PE'Z got a taste
of what may await them last summer, when the quintet first
shared the stage with big-name overseas talent at the Mount
Fuji Jazz Festival. "It was a very warm reception and
very enjoyable," recalls B.M.W. "Visiting artists
from overseas heard our music and accepted it as a new form
of jazz-that was really gratifying for us."
While B.M.W. says he's long wanted to play overseas,
he seems a bit amused that Toshiba EMI is targeting 2004 for
PE'Z's international debut. "I've
always thought I'd like to play abroad, but even though
I feel this way every year, such chances don't present
themselves often." He laughs and says: "Our
record company seems to have decided that next year will be
the year we break internationally, but to be honest with you,
we don't really know anything about it!"
PE'Z play Club Quattro on
February 24-28. See concert listings for details.