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Monday, November 20, 2017 
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Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble
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Dreams
Tzadik
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Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka" is one of the most astonishing films of the last 10 years, a three-and-a-half-hour ode to the remarkable resilience of human beings, played out in the quietest of manners. But what to make of Jim O'Rourke's influence? As the film slowly comes to its conclusion (the "climax," in terms of action, occurs right at the beginning), the scenes at the sea play out to the sounds of O'Rourke's song "Eureka." All nine minutes of it. When the film finishes, the word "Eureka" is emblazoned in bold color across the screen. Whether the inspiration O'Rourke provided Aoyama was central to his film, or just transient, is not really that much of a burning question. Aoyama's work of art is so great that he doesn't owe anything to those people who may have inspired him (a short list could also include John Ford, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Shohei Imamura).

Similarly, Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble may be all about inspiration, but their collective artistic work, Dreams, transcends any influences that may have impelled its making. Of course, this New Jazz outfit — which falls somewhere in the Otomo spectrum between Novo Tono and Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet — doesn't really play jazz, or anything close to any of its modern variations. They're not really particularly avant-gardist, either, which is another idea one could associate with the name. Rather, their conception of "jazz" is interpretation. Where, in the early days of the Quintet, that meant Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, this album filled with versions of compositions by contemporaries of Otomo, like Omoide Hatoba/Boredoms/Rovo guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto (who played with him in Novo Tono), modern compositional piano-deconstructionist Naoko Eto (who played on his Cathode album), mod-pop percussionist Asa-Chang, and, yes, the wandering American Jim O'Rourke. With two vocalists — the legendary Phew (who sang on the Novo Tono album) and the more obscure Jun Togawa — fronting the songs, the album is, to a considerable degree, a pop record. With Togawa and her childlike voice featured on the opening track, "Preach," this capricious mixture of high-art tonalism and songform sentimentalism immediately recalls the work of one of the most idiosyncratic and inspiring artists currently working in music, Japanese avant-diva Haco. And for much of the record that comparison serves well. At their best, though, the Ensemble are like some great out-rock band, gathering their Quintet of players on saxophones/percussion/guitar/contra-bass into contemplative, melancholy pieces, and, then, alternately, driving those same instruments into massive, wrung-out finales that find the gathered spiritualist conviction of psychedelia. Given that it's Otomo, it's no surprise that the album never even really settles into that notion, or the notion of it being a pop record, let alone a jazz one.

As if to increase its genre alienation, onkyo icon Sachiko M, a longtime collaborateur, plays on most the record, lacing the more "tribal" thumps of acoustic instruments with her piercing sine-waves, recalling the first two albums of Haco's pan-Asian girl-group trio Hoahio, with Sachiko's almost a-musical output drawn into the framework of pop songs. And the whole album, perhaps best thought of as Otomo's out-rock paean to songform, revolves around an interpretation of a pop song: Jim O'Rourke's "Eureka." Dynamically drawn out to 16 profound minutes, the Ensemble's take on Jim O's tune dwarfs the quaint, quizzical, emotionally detached original, as it moves from melancholy lament — with Togawa's girlish voice pushed cutely to the fore — to a mad, manic ending whose vivid viciousness comes close to audio assault. In between its first movement and last, an extended interlude drifts along with nothing but the sounds of waves quietly rocking away, before eventually giving way to an extended tone from Sachiko that draws it into its frenetic final movement.

Through this moment of downtime in the middle, this version of "Eureka" has more in common with the film than it does with O'Rourke's original. Totally evocative, the sounds bring back hazy recollections of the pic's silent heroine, 15 year-old Kazue (Aoi Miyazaki, playing opposite her brother), finding some realization of internal salvation by wandering, searching, fully clothed, through the waves. Being so struck by images from the film strikes me with the possibility that Otomo himself may have been inspired by experiencing O'Rourke's song as part of the film, and that, indeed, this interpretation could be an interpretation of the music as heard in the film — this reading of "Eureka" being O'Rourke's version viewed through the prism of the film. Making things even more convoluted is the fact that the "sea and wind sounds" Otomo uses are taken from another film, "Blue," by Hiroshi Ando, a director he's worked with in the past.

All of these interwoven connections lead to a simple conclusion: that no art is made without inspiration. And that inspiration can come from a community of contemporaries, can come from the people and music that surround you now, not just from whatever it was you loved when you were 16. And given that pop music, in a manner symbolic of society at large, is obsessed with nostalgia, this is a significant gesture. Here, Otomo celebrates his love of his music, and that of his friends, and in a sense a love of his friends, by celebrating his love of music itself, as it is at this very moment. He seeks not to perpetuate some concept of a golden age, either in his past or in pop culture's, but instead embraces all that surrounds him now. And, in that, this work of inspiration is itself profoundly inspiring.


by Anthony Carew




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