Three By Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Ensembles

Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra
Doubt Music

Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra
Doubt Music

Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Quintet
Clean Feed

Otomo Yoshihide’s passion for jazz is well known, and has fuelled two of his most highly acclaimed working units since 1999. The ONJQ evolved into the ONJO around 2004, after the departure of saxophonist Kikuchi Naruyoshi and the arrival of Kahimi Karie, Alfred Harth, Sachiko M and Kumiko Takara. Aside from serving as a showcase for Yoshihide’s unique compositional skills, ONJQ/ONJO have celebrated artists as diverse as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Jim O’Rourke, James Blood Ulmer and even the Beatles, reinventing their compositions as an utterly convincing mesh of EAI and furious free jazz. Familiar themes expand inexorably into free-for-all improvisation, at times homing in on scattered, near-silent small sounds while on other occasions (such as their version of O’Rourke’s “Eureka”) reaching for Last Exit-style devastation. It’s a peculiar sonic morphology that generates hours of ear-cleansing, high-octane material.

ONJO – the album – is the more “intellectual” of the two Orchestra outings. “Eureka” is sung in Jane Birkin-like French by Kahimi Karie, who whispers and sighs until Otomo’s gentle chordal accompaniment gives way to hundreds of contrasting lines in an explosion of intertwining counterpoint. “Theme from Canary” starts with ruined vinyl and continues with a melodic motif worthy of Gil Evans. Charles Mingus’s “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” (already recorded by ONJQ on Tails Out) walks along the cliff-top of pulverized freedom, and Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” rises out of a boiling lava of false starts and snippets. By contrast, the closing “A-Shi-Ta”, with Hamada Mariko vocalising over a slow percussive pattern, could almost be incidental music to a theatre piece, its evocative depth and intensity perfectly counterbalancing the preceding tracks.

There’s a strong element of humour in Out To Lunch, as Dolphy’s milestone is both honoured and dissected by an army of expert students transformed into mad scientists at the flick of a switch. The themes are fought over with an enjoyable mixture of mercurial irony and transcendence, with the honours going to “Hat And Beard” (also one of the Quintet’s strongest covers, as demonstrated by their superb version on the DIW album ONJQ Live) and the title track, both pieces offering themselves in sacrifice to chaotic collective interplay. “Gazzelloni” meanwhile is a brutal four-minute beating with a punkish flavour (I’m reminded of Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble). “Something Sweet, Something Tender” starts with an unbelievable bass clarinet solo from Harth. The Seoul-based Frankfurter is one of the most recognizable voices in the Orchestra, along with Axel Dörner, Mats Gustafsson and Sachiko M, the latter applying her sinewaves discreetly throughout both discs. “Straight Up And Down – Will Be Back” closes the show with a 28-minute trip through EAI, everything insinuated rather than affirmed in an invisible bridge linking two worlds that have more in common than you might think as far as inquisitive musicianship is concerned.

My personal favourite in this batch is the truly huge Live in Lisbon, which was recorded live at 2004’s Jazz em Agosto festival (and reviewed in these pages) and features Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che”, Dolphy’s “Serene”, Otomo’s “Flutter” and (again) O’Rourke’s “Eureka”. Special mention must be made of Mats Gustafsson, playing with ONJQ for the very first time that night, who is a force of nature throughout but so profound when needed (how can you not fall in love with that baritone on “Flutter”?), and drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro, whose explosive energy would make even Shannon Jackson envious. If “Song for Che” – a heartfelt hymn if ever there was one – and “Serene” elicit a few raised eyebrows among the non-believers pretending to be your best friends, then try harassing your neighbourhood by blasting “Eureka” at full volume: the spirit of O’Rourke’s simple melody, first extrapolated with gut determination, then cried out by the Quintet until their eyes pop out of their sockets, will send your teeth flying out. This version is THE ONE, five musicians touched by grace, playing their asses off and their hearts out. Jaw-breaking, positive, enormous music. Get a copy of this CD pronto and start digging through ONJQ’s back catalogue on Tzadik and DIW too. A revelation awaits you.


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