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Jazz messengers

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 mouth alone.

"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 with Toshiba-EMI.

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.

credit: World apart.