Takuji Yamada alto saxophones, bass clarinet
Daisuke Abe guitar
Yoko Komori piano
Kuriko Tsugawa bass
Yoshifumi Nihonmatsu drums
Produced by: UoU
Co-produced by: Pete Zimmer
Recorded May 12, 2012 at Studio Dede, Tokyo, Japan
Recording Engineer Shinya Matsushita
Mixed and Mastered by Akihiro Nishimura
Photos by Hiroki Tadano
Liner Notes by Dan Ouellette
CD Design by UoU Production
A profusuion of aspiring jazz musicians from around the globe come to the United States, the birthplace of the genre, to study its tradition and learn from the masters. This not only expands jazz’s vital reach worldwide, but it also opens jazz itself to new forms of expression infused with the musical cultures of other countries. Historically jazz has been enriched by outside influences, ranging from the integration of Afro-Cuban musical forms and polyrhythms that created the Latin jazz idiom to the young pianist from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, who rather than merely emulate his jazz heroes brought his folkloric music into the mix to find his voice. Too often, though, enthusiastic jazz musicians who move to the U.S. opt to strictly conform to the conventions of jazz rather than use their own personalities and experiences to, in essence, refresh the music as well as create their own vital identities.
One of the most adventurous young bands that is auspiciously exploring jazz with its national heritage in mind is UoU, a quintet of musicians who hail from Japan. All five members made the pilgrimage to the jazz home base, via the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston and later to New York (arguably the world’s jazz capital).
“We always think about Japan,” says guitarist Daisuke Abe. “And we don’t try to hide our Japanese sense of melody and rhythm when we play. Usually foreigners study jazz and try to fit into the American music. They think that you have to hide who you are to play authentic jazz. But we try to be as natural as possible.”
“We want to play who we are,” adds bassist Kuriko Tsugawa.
UoU brings its unique sound inflected by Japanese lyricism and rhythm to the fore on its remarkable sophomore album, Take the 7 Train. Starting with the CD title, you sense that the band is committed to a creative vision. Most bands would be happy to retread familiar territory with a rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the Billy Strayhorn standard, that became Duke Ellington’s signature tune, that stamped approval on the long subway line that stretches from Far Rockaway in Queens to Inwood in upper Manhattan.
But UoU has hopped onto a different subway line: the 7 train. Drummer Yoshifumi Nihonmatsu wrote the tune “Take the 7 Train” and later came up with the title. “It was in 7 so he was joking that that’s how we should name it,” says Daisuke.
Kuriko adds, “We used to go to the jam at Cleopatra’s Needle [in the Upper West Side on Broadway Avenue] and come home late at 3 or 4 in the morning. And some of us would take the 7 train.” Not only is the tune catchy, but it also captures the images of the late-night subway: the homeless, the drunks, the people who are tired and the people who are noisy.
Yoshifumi also wrote the upbeat opening tune, “Hanabi,” which translated means “fireworks.” It’s a song that references the summer festivals in Japan, with the firework displays and Taiko drums. It’s followed by Kuriko’s “That Day,” a melodic beauty that alludes to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on “that day,” March 11, 2011. “We were touring in the north and we felt it,” she says. “I got scared. The gig got cancelled and there was a blackout for two days and no cellphone [service]. It sounds scary and shaking.”
Daisuke cites a very personal experience as the backstory to the spirited “Life Goes On,” about one of his best friends dying (the album will be dedicated to him). The reason for the sunny feel to the song, he says, is “a message for myself and everyone else that whenever terrible things happen, it’s all the more reason to want to live.” That’s followed by Kuriko’s lyrical “Milena” about the girl she used to babysit whose cuteness, laughter and smile gave her hope. “She gave me many things,” she says. “This is my gift to her.”
UoU’s noteworthy debut album, Home, which began their journey into melding the jazz tradition with their homeland styles and experiences, was a ten-pack of band member originals. On Take the 7 Train UoU inserts a cover into the middle of the set: the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer jewel, “Moon River.” Instead of reharmonizing the melody to obscurity, alto saxophone/bass clarinet player Takuji Yamada arranged the number with a light touch as a slow tempo, reflective show-stopper.
The second half of Take the 7 Train flows with two tunes each from Daisuke and Takuji. Daisuke’s “Joli” is upbeat and sounds like it was a blast to play (it was written over 10 years ago when he first came to New York and was gigging with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw), and his “ii” (which means good in Japanese and is pronounced with a long e in English) is in the key of E and is a swinging “thumb’s up” tune. Takuji’s “Lake” is a reflective piece inspired by a visit to Sri Lanka and his bright, dance-like “Palms” is charged with the idea of hand palms being vehicles for prayer.
The CD ends with “St. Peter’s Church,” a gem written by the band’s pianist Yoko Komori. It opens with Kuriko’s bowed bass and develops slowly with a musing sensibility—both reverent and melancholic. It’s inspired by St. Peter’s Church, with fine stained-glass windows, in New York’s downtown district that was located very close to Ground Zero. Kuriko notes that the song is dedicated to peace and love in the aftermath of 9/11.
Even though three members of UoU have moved back to Japan (only Daisuke and Kuriko, who were married in May 2012, remain in Queens, New York), the quintet remains intact, linking up together on tours in Japan and in the U.S.
“We’re still growing together,” Daisuke says, “and we hope our music will reach more people.”
“There’s so much music in the world,” says Kuriko. “It’s important for us to be ourselves and to explore in our own way. We don’t want to sound like anyone else.”
UoU is well on its way to breaking new ground as a band of creative artists who are not willing to make tailor-made music. The life and energy of Take the 7 Train affirms that.
—Dan Ouellette, DownBeat, author of Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes and the upcoming biography Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear