J-pop Star Senri Oe Makes Death-Defying Hairpin Turn into Jazz

Senri 2

The very first jazz release from former Japanese pop star Senri Oe is called “HMMM” and it is with this humorous introspection that one can regard the new direction he’s enthusiastically embraced. The CD comes out September 20 on PND Records.

Regardless of mood or mode, the tracks jump off the page with spirit and affection. Take “The Look,” a tight and lively piece that showcases Oe’s sense of pure joy as he explores the full beauty of the keyboard. The three opening beats of “Bikini” that are twisted with syncopation give way to a surprise samba-like groove that pulses and glows. “A Fireplace” is a sweet offering that takes the familiar “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and morphs the melody with fresh key changes and adornments that are uniquely Oe’s. Despite its cute name, “When Life Was a Pizza Party” is unapologetically romantic.

This trio is on it in the best way possible. “HMMM” is a gorgeous debut by a very unexpected newcomer to jazz. It’s a lovely way to start things off, seducing us with a promise of more excellent music to come. 

Describe the “leap” from pop to jazz- did you have to recalibrate your musical sensitivity, or loosen your tie, etc. to jump into the jazz waters?

Yes. It was very hard for me to recalibrate because I had my own style of music which was totally different. I was a characterized icon called ‘Senri Oe Style of Pop’ in Japan for over 20 years. The first thing I did was to attend college, which was like a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when I was 47 years old. I was the only Asian student and of course, there was no one over the age of 20 besides me.

Jazz has harmonic progressions (tension chords, mode, linear movements, inversions etc.). Pop is a spectrum of sounds with a variety of musical complexity. So, in the pop world, I can challenge any song to sound like ‘jazzy’ pop to embrace many formats. But in the jazz world, I can’t break its rules. I need to follow them correctly, otherwise nothing will happen or work, and no one will pay attention to me.

I was thinking jazz would be a more free and flexible style of music before I came to U.S., but I realized that I was totally wrong. I used to have pop behaviors and wrote many songs in Japan. When I first came to New York, I had to change  my ‘blood’ completely from pop to jazz. Downbeat toward upbeat — diatonic toward another bunch of scales, and always root toward inversions.

How has your long-standing following reacted to you as a reimagined jazz composer and performer? 

I have not been openly acknowledged as a jazz pianist by most of my long-standing Japanese followers. Check out my YouTube views. There are only 1,000 views of my jazz videos but almost 300,000 views of my pop music videos.

On the other hand, some long-standing listeners have started to listen to jazz through my music, which is an entrance into the real jazz world for them. I am honored to introduce jazz to them, and glad to open a new door of jazz after pop music. 

What do you like best about the trio configuration? 

Three is the smallest but strongest number that allows us to do anything we want. Ari Hoenig (drums), Matt Clohesy (bass) and I are the best trinity for my original jazz compositions on “HMMM.” I had so much fun making this CD.

How did you meet Ari and Matt and what do they contribute to the vibe of the music? 

The first time Ari and I met was seven years ago during a gig, but he did not remember it at all. At that time, I might have not been mature enough to show my original compositions to him.

Oh, and by the way, I hired a different drummer before Ari, and he recommended Matt as a perfect bass for my tunes and trio. We rehearsed a couple of times for my Japan and Hawaii tour in May. It sounded great, and I was totally happy about the band. One day, very close to the beginning of the tour, the drummer called me to say to he had to leave because another big rehearsal would start during my trio tour. He tried his best to change his schedule, but could not make it, and gave up going with us to Japan. I had mixed feelings of being sad and in limbo, but suddenly, I remembered Ari Hoenig! I immediately asked my manager to call him, even though I did not know his number. She found him on his Facebook page and messaged him to ask about joining the trio. Ari told her that he needed a day or so to listen to my music, then he would decide. The next day, we received his answer which was yes

Once the Senri Oe Trio was reborn, we started rehearsing immediately.  Ari is a genius, and he has his own strong musical opinions like myself.  During the Japan Tour at Blue Note Tokyo, Ari and I were intense on stage!

Matt always tries to understand my tunes and gives me some great suggestions. His most important position is being a mediator between Ari and I. I am very lucky and happy to have such top-level jazz musicians playing my first jazz trio tunes.

Why do you feel piano allows you to express yourself the best out of all the instruments?

When I was three, I started classical piano training. When I was 10, I started composing. Piano has always been my friend, and I have always lived for the piano. I know the piano can express my feelings and thoughts. It was very natural for me to be a singer-songwriter in Japan, and now I am a jazz pianist.

Piano has been a part of me perhaps from birth, and I never thought about any other instrument. 

Why is a sense of humor so important in making good music?

This is a very deep question and hard to answer.

I had experience acting in the 80s and 90s in Japan and learned how to “act” by laughing and smiling in a drama, which is the most difficult expression for actors. Jazz has feelings of sadness and joy at the same time. The minor scales seem sad, but the major scales are very happy and bright.

Jazz cats can express with a high-level of technique, but a sense of humor is also a necessary spice to create sound originality.

How long did it take to compile the music for “HMMM” and what were the highlights of producing it?

It has been more than eight years since I first began composing jazz. All the songs on this album were written little by little in those days. This May, after my trio tour in Japan and Hawaii, my dad passed away. He was a man who supported my life and music. Unfortunately, he was suffering from cancer for a long time, and I knew that he would live only a couple of months, at most. While I was visiting him after our Japanese tour, we made a toast with beer to my successful tour before I left Japan for New York. It was my last day, and an unforgettable moment to be with him. My sister in Japan called with the news that my dad departed this life when I got back to Brooklyn. I wished I could have dwelled on memories of my dad at the time, but the recording schedule did not allow me to, because it was only two days away.

At that time, I felt like I was riding on a never-ending emotional roller coaster, then I took a deep breath and murmured “Hmmm.” I decided to keep the recording as scheduled, even though I was in the deepest sorrow in my life, because my “children” (songs) were waiting to be born into the world. 

On recording day, I knew something good would happen to me. I was very relaxed when I started recording the three solo tunes by myself, before the six trio tunes. Amazingly, I finished recording three songs in an hour! After Ari and Matt arrived, it took us only five hours to finish all the tunes, even though we rehearsed only one hour before recording. It was four hours shorter than we expected.  

Matt asked me, ” Is there anything else we have to do?” I answered, “Nope!” The recording was over before dinner time, and each member was able to have a nice night with their family and friends. A lot of miracles happened during the recording, and I believe my dad might have embraced us from Heaven. 

What is your favorite track? Which was the most problematic track?

This is literally a fun question! 

“The Look” was composed for Lauren Bacall, dedicated to her because she is one of my favorite actresses. “Re:Vision” was naturally born through the collaboration of all the musicians’ gifted talents. No theory at all, just the song which was provided to them. “Orange Desert,” “Indoor Voiced” and “Bikini” were already performed in May during the Blue Note Tour in Japan and Hawaii, but we added some more sophisticated, edgy spices to the mix. Fans may notice the difference if they heard these in Japan. “Poignant Kisses” has the movement and structure of Big Band jazz, but Ari and Matt preferred to play it differently, with a more powerful beat. After a long conflict, we agreed to play it in a Frankie Knuckles house beat style, of course played acoustic, and we love it!

Now I can say that we are accustomed to each other and respect each other much more than at the beginning of this band. This made the album sound very organic and natural.

What do you want global audiences to really know about you?

That music is borderless. As a music lover since I was born, young or old, I’ve been enjoying all genres of music without thinking about my age. I forget how old I am when I’m listening to music. Sometimes I feel much younger, and sometimes I feel my biological age. I’m always a music cat and am thrilled to think about what’s going to happen next in my music, which takes me to a new chapter of my life. I believe life can be revised, updated and reset to proceed toward the next level without giving up the desire for living. 

What do you like most about the scene in NYC? 

The diversity, the acceptance, anonymity and “Hmmm.”

There are people from all over the world living in New York City. New Yorkers are all so different, with different accents, habits and cultures. I think New York is the most diverse city in the world. New Yorkers do not discriminate just because of what someone looks like. For example, I saw a man wearing an expensive suit having a nice conversation with a man wearing a dirty looking shirt on the subway. In New York, people respect each other beyond race, wellness, age, nationality and more.  

I also like my anonymity living in New York. When I walk down the street, sometimes I hum a melody. One day, a stranger also humming joined me and we made a harmony together. “Good voice.” “Great tune.” We praised each other’s humming and laughed. “Have a great day,” he said, patting my shoulder, and we kept going our own ways without knowing each other. Simple!  It is very simple to make someone happy, and it happens all the time in New York. 

To feel happiness, I’m not concerned with “who should I be” or afraid of people looking at me. I never need any reason to feel happiness. Simply and naturally, I feel warmth, love and peace from the people and music in New York all the time. That’s the reason why I love New York. 

Other comments? 

Debbie, I love your all questions! Through your questions, I could look back at my life, and realize who I am little by little. This was a very precious time for me to think about answering your questions. Thank you very much.

For more information, visit www.peaceneverdie.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Senri Oe.

(c) Debbie Burke 2019

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