What’s the likelihood that five of the world’s most happening composers in big band and chamber jazz would be Japanese-American women from New York? And what’s the chance that they would all converge for an afternoon in the middle of Gowanus, Brooklyn? Believe it, it’s happening on February 14 at 4 PM when the 17-piece Sakura Jazz Orchestra plays material by Miho Hazama, Asuka Kakitani, Migiwa Miyajima, Meg Okura, and Noriko Ueda at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15, and there are other more expensive options with perks for those with the means of supporting the artists on a patronage level. A night out on Valentine’s Day may be a no-fly zone for both those of us with sweethearts and those without, but this show’s early start time enables you to get home in time for snuggling…or to get away from the weirdos.
Edgy violinist Okura, leader of the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, is the senior member of the composer contingent. Bassist Ueda has lately split her time between playing big band gigs and leading her own purposeful, tuneful trio, while pianist Miyajima focuses more specifically on big, powerful, enveloping compositions. While it might seem farfetched to imagine an album any more lustrous or rhythmically shapeshifting than Kakitani’s magnificent 2012 debut album Bloom with her Big Band, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that about Hazama’s debut from the same year, Journey to Journey, streaming at Spotify and recorded with her 13-piece ensemble M-Unit.
It’s a landmark of largescale composition, one of the most counterintuitively and imaginatively arranged releases of this decade. It’s as ambitious a debut big band jazz album as anyone’s ever recorded. It instantly put Hazama on the map alongside Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and Erica Seguine. Hazama’s erudition across many, many idioms is astonishing even in this era when you can youtube pretty much anything. And she can be hilarious, often with a sarcastic or occasionally cruel streak.
Hazama is a wild storyteller, and in those epic narratives she does pretty much everything you can do with, or would want from a large jazz ensemble. Instruments are paired and arranged unexpectedly, and hardly anything ever repeats. Drama and surprise are where you least expect them. Hazama engages a string quartet for melody and color as much as she employs the brass and reeds. She loves textures, particularly strange and unnerving ones, fueling the impression that she has even more of a dark side than she lets on. And the musicians, a cast of allstar and rising star talent, have a ball with this music.
The opening cut, Mr. O portrays a garrulous amusement park owner, with all kinds of droll conversation between various band members, and sections, plus plenty of neat echo phrases, chattering between voices and a bit of unexpectedly woozy surrealism. Tokyo Confidencial shifts from bustling, airconditioned clave to hints of a classic by the Doors, diverges toward reggae and eventually emerges as a rather beautiful neoromantically-tinged anthem. Blue Forest beefs up genially bluesy Nat King Cole phrasing with ambitoiusly expansive Gil Evans colors.
The title track never settles in groovewise even while it shifts in many directions, as Kakutani likes to do. Droll solo spots contrast with underlying, toweringly cinematic unease; there’s a charmingly coy, marionettish exchange, hints of Afro-Cuban melody and a very intense, agitated coda, the kind that you seldom hear in jazz. Paparazzi, which is just as sweeping and even funnier, opens hilariously as it mimics the “this won’t play” sound from a computer. Furtive stalkers too easily pleased do not get off well on this track, at all, and Hazama is very specific and articulate about thas. Hazama returns to fullscale angst bordering on horror with Believing in Myself, which should come with a question mark, a harrowing chamber-jazz number with a relentless ache and inner turmoil, her own Monk-tinged piano rippling moodily through it up the least expected cartoonish interlude ever written. Does she go as far over the top with you think she might? If you haven’t heard it, no spoilers.
She follows the simply titled Ballad – a fragmentary tone poem of sorts – with What Will You See, which mingles allusions to funk and Jim McNeely newschool swing with devious permutations on a chattering horn theme. That and the easygoing final cut, Hidamari are the closest things to the kind of large-ensemble stuff you typically hear at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, but even here, Hazama can’t resist pulling away from contentment as her divergent voicings take centerstage when she winds it up.
By contrast, the album’s followup, last year’s Time River – which doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, at least in English – seems like a grab bag, if a grab bag from a really good party. It seems aimed at a more trad jazz audience, the arrangements are simpler and there’s an interlude which what sound like set pieces from films – good ones, admittedly. And there are still plenty of the kind of delicious moments that pepper Hazama’s work. Muted Brazilian-flavored drums add unexpected color to the rather trad postbop of The Urban Legend. The tremolo effect on James Shipp’s vibraphone and a gritty soul detective theme give Cityscape as vast a panorama as the title calls for. Hazama employs Gil Golstein’s accordion for a lengthy, harmonically edgy excursion to rival Astor Piazzolla at his most avant garde in the tango-inspired Under the Same Moon, while the ensemble gallops over an altered qawwali beat with all kinds of playful handoffs up to a tricky false ending and explosive coda on Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower.
After the surrealistically warping, oscillating string piece Alternate Universe, Was That Real? Hazama’s furtive piano introduces her chamber-jazz Fugue – an early composition n that already showcases her irrepressible wit as well as her penchant for stormy intensity. The epic title track is the only one that really reaches for the debut album’s titanic majesty, building out of an uneasily circling, Philip Glass-tinged riff, through brashly charging swing passages to the unease that Hazama so often confronts, ending unresolved after a frantically sailing peak. After that, making swing out of an 80s goth-pop hit by A Perfect Circle seems an afterthought, tacked on to end the album on an upbeat note. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this demanding but richly rewarding material the orchestra can handle on the 14th.