The Journey to Jazz Fusion

My young years were filled with the sights and sounds of giant robots murdering each other, the sizzle of Thai food on the stove, the Chicago Police sirens blaring down the block and my Dad telling me and my brother to stop being a pair of lazy dimwits.  However, when I look back on the “sound” part, especially when it came to music, I mainly listened to what my Dad listened to.  Much of that consisted of Billy Idol, The Eagles, Dire Straits here or there (my listening to them increased during college), the awesomeness of video game tunes that I would spam during the BGM options of carts like “Streets of Rage” or “Super Street Fighter 2”, and the ever nostalgic, Thai rock stylings of Asanee & Wasan.  In retrospect however, I didn’t really come into my own consciousness of what I liked (or what I THOUGHT I liked) in music until the years between 1997 and 2000, which were my high school years.  At that time, alternative radio reigned supreme, and the now defunct Q101 held up our banner high.  Sure, I’d throw some other adult contemp and 80s in there, but bands like Filter, Linkin’ Park, Staind, and the rest of that edgy stuff was what piqued everyone’s interests at the time.

With all of this in mind, I find it strange yet satisfying that I now divert my musical attention to a genre that I would have never considered relevant to me during those years, and that genre is Jazz, specifically Jazz fusion from Japan.

By the time I got into college, Zanz and I were already hooked to the music of Overclocked.org and its slew of independent artists that gave out their own interpretations of classic gaming tunes.  The majority of them were well produced and offered new avenues in listening to old favorites, but all in all, it didn’t entirely solve or satiate the reason for the both of us to download these tracks in the first place, and that was to listen to the original music.  Why should I listen to what “GeckoYamori” dishes out for an SOR track when I can listen to what Yuzo Koshiro originally made back in 1991?  Do I need to here so-and-so loop some ambient acid bullshit just so he / she could make “Bloody Tears” sound different?  Where’s the Rapidshare for the Y’s Book 1 & 2 OST, the most ass-kicking RPG album ever, from the Turbografx CD?  Why does your girlfriend force you to listen to Portishead while you’re making out when she knows full well that you’ll only fuck her to Wu-Tang Clan and half a bottle of King Cobra?

Yes, college was that time when you exposed yourself to all kinds of things, like failure and booze, but it was a great opportunity for me to diversify my taste in music.  Thanks to my friend Jose, I was already hooked on Pete Yorn (who I still believe is highly underrated), and Zanz and I found ourselves scrounging through places like Reckless Records to find old alternative gems, classic rock albums or 80s throwback treasures that deserved more of our attention.  Finding your shelf filled with Urge Overkill, Weezer’s blue album, Robert Palmer, or burned copies of Metal Gear Solid music automatically made us the coolest sound gangstas this side of Lake Michigan, free from any frontin’ or jivin’.  My brother was always attuned to guitar greatness, and yes, his love of all music Guilty Gear XX related was truly the evidence for it, but by 2004, I was slowly getting closer and closer to jazz.

I don’t know if it was 2003, 2004 or 2005, but during my weekend nights studying, I went to jazz as a way to give me some sound during my dives into advanced math without providing any distractions.  Smooth jazz was always hit or miss, but if you studied past 8pm on Saturday, you’d find yourself in the syndicated program entitled “Legends of Jazz”, where you got to hear all the juiciest tunes from all the greats.  Most of them I’ve never heard of, but a great deal of them were just wonderful.  In addition, some artists from Overclocked ventured well into jazz, which impressed me greatly (Mega Man 2 “Intro Jazz” anyone?).  Once you’ve coupled all that with the popularity of “Cowboy Bebop” and the jazziness that began to envelope Japanese video games, including the “Metal Gear Solid” series, then you’ve got yourself a cocktail called inevitability, maybe even destiny.  By Christmas of 2004, my old friend Jose gave me a wonderful gift, and that was the original soundtrack to the motion picture inspired by Ray Charles himself, entitled simply as “Ray.”  If I remember correctly, that winter was tinged in bittersweet hues with “You Don’t Know Me” humming in my room as I overlooked the snow.

Since then, jazz grew on me.  Zanz’s ties with the awesome Galbadia Hotel gave us the opportunity to check out more anime and video game soundtracks, from the “King of Fighters” to obscure shooters like the awesome “Gate of Thunder”, yet it became the jazzy tracks that made me put them on repeat on my CD player.  One track in particular that really struck me in 2005-2006 was from the Neo Sound Orchestra, a group of music developers for the cult favorite development team of SNK.  In 1994, the Neo Sound Orchestra made a Live album in Osaka entitled “Neo Geo Super Live,” featuring live renditions of their soundtracks, including stuff from Samurai Showdown, Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting.  Out of all the tracks that were available in that disc, the one that Zanz thought I would like was the live rendition of the Art of Fighting 2 ending theme, entitled either as “Long and Random,” or “It Never Ends.”  By the time I finished listening to it, I was awestruck.  The song’s piano laid the groundwork for what would be a smashing finish with the alto sax, which made for memorable, if not melancholy, music.  At that point, my move to Florida was imminent and this proved to be the song I would listen to at night as I oversaw the city from the apartment that I would no longer call home.  I’ve stated different ideas in my life as to how or when I grew into this genre, but in retrospect, I feel that it was that moment in time when I truly felt that this was where my ears should take me in years to come.  Like many things in life, when something stirs your mind, it stays with you.  I was just surprised to find that in all my years of listening to music, what stirred me the most required absolutely no words.

Even though my venture towards the Sunshine state sounded like a downer, I expanded my listening ears so much as a result that it’s almost unbelievable.  After a year or two in Florida, I was introduced to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album through a co-worker, which was an epiphany into classic jazz and an affirmation that music had evolved earlier in time than I had realized (it isn’t the best selling jazz album of all time for nuthin’).  In addition, I soon depended on YouTube for all my music needs, whether it was something interesting from the radio of yesteryear, or something else that was anime or gaming related.  All that recent shit usually went out the window unless some female ass-shaking was involved, namely from co-workers.  I soon found out that YouTube was a haven to showcase videos of jazz musicians, most notably Japanese jazz musicians who played jazz / rock or “jazz fusion” music.  From there, I found out about the funky-hip -grooviness of Fujimaru Yoshino and Shogun, and slowly found my way into the out-of-this-world jazz rock of the four man powerhouse known as Casiopea.  Tracks such as “Asayake” and the like blew my mind with its addictive use of slap bass, space-like synth work and soaring guitar solos.  It felt like all the awesome junk I heard from my video games, but ten times better, and it was enjoyed by adults, which in many ways, made me feel that my love for that unusual kind of music was somehow legitimized.

By that time, it was 2008.  Casiopea was a band that I thought led the way in this funky new genre I discovered called jazz fusion.  In fact, they appeared to be popular among underground jazz fans in the States, and apparently have churned up a bit of respect among other jazz musicians from the States too, including gents like Harvey Mason, Lee Ritenour and Bob James (who eventually became the smooth jazz outlet named “Fourplay”).  This gave me all the more reason to scour YouTube for more of their live videos.  Most of them were great performances, but one live performance that struck me was one from 2003, where they held a concert with another jazz fusion group named simply as T-Square.  The following video I discovered then proceeded to blow my mind into wonton oatmeal.

“Asayake” was already a huge hit internationally for Casiopea, but the addition of this other band made the song so awesome that I just had to find out more about these guys.  As it turns out, they have a massive following on YouTube as well, and like Casiopea, their career had sprung from the late 70s and has flourished throughout the decades until now.  T-Square soon eclipsed Casiopea for me and is now everyday listening, thanks in part to all the wonderful contributors of JJ’s Jazz blog.  Hell, I love these guys so much that I convinced GrumpyGrad to buy me an album during his Japan studies as a birthday gift. 

T-Square’s use of the alto sax was really what sold me to these guys.  They weren’t quite a rock group, but weren’t playing it up to the jazz police either.  They could dabble in latin rhythms if they wanted to, or could play something that sounded like it was made for an 80s sci-fi anime, but no matter what, they delivered it all and still managed to fit a saxophone into the mix and make it the frontman of the track (if not the sax than the unusually cool EWI).   The band’s versatility, technique and happy attitude during the live performances you’d see on YouTube are the best way to enjoy the group because you really get to see a bunch cool folks having a good time making great music, and that’s what counts.  Thus, I am now a T-Square fan for life, with no regrets. NONE!!

With all this in mind, I feel that jazz has a way of giving their players this attitude, this cool, and this sort of happiness or togetherness when you see them jam.  The alternative scene was always angry and drab, and if anything, it can distract you from what’s actually being played by the musicians since most of the time we’re hearing about what’s being sung, whereas in jazz, you play off of each other, support the rest of the band while someone goes into their solo and watch how everything unfolds while being bound together by the techniques you’ve mastered as a musician.  I didn’t see this kind of spirit illustrated in most of the music I listened to then, and I certainly don’t see it in the music that’s being heard on the radio now.  As I stated earlier, I never thought anything would stir my ears as much as jazz would.  For the most part, there’s hardly any lyrics and the title usually leaves a vague clue about the theme of what’s being played, yet like poetry, it’s subjective and it allows you a freedom of interpretation that most music genres fail to deliver.  All in all, my journey towards discovering this genre was a long one, and all the music I’ve loved prior to this won’t be forgotten, but with all the variety, listener interpretation and urban cool that jazz fusion provides in a single track, I can honestly say that this style of music is truly hard to top.

The lineup of jazz fusion maestros T-Square as of 2011. From L to R: Satoshi Bandoh (Drums), Masahiro Andoh (Guitar), Takeshi Itoh (Alto Sax & EWI) and Keizoh Kawano (Keyboards & Synthesizers).

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