Review by Alex Henderson
Journalist/Entertainment Critic of Ariel Publicity
Asian pop music, depending on the artist, can be anything from bubble gum to edgy to sexy to sophisticated. It all depends on what a particular artist is going for. Cuteness is big in Asian popular culture, which is why a lot of bubble gum music has come out of China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. But many Asian pop artists aren’t bubblegum at all. Japanese singer/songwriter Megumi Habuka, for example, favors a sophisticated, urbane, jazz-influenced approach on her four-song EP Perfect.
The bilingual Habuka, who was born and raised in Saitama, Japan but now lives in New York City, describes herself as a jazz singer. But Perfect is not the work of a jazz purist or an artist who performs straight-ahead acoustic bop exclusively; rather, Habuka’s music is a combination of jazz, R&B (especially R&B of the quiet storm variety) and pop/adult contemporary. One hears a variety of direct or indirect influences on Perfect; Habuka’s musical heritage includes vocal jazz, but it also includes Stevie Wonder, Sade, Joni Mitchell, early Angela Bofill and the Burt Bacharch/Hal David team. Habuka is in her twenties, although she gets a great deal of inspiration from artists who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
Perfect contains one Habuka original: the title song. “Nobody, Not Really” and “Come Over” are covers, and “Cry Me a River” is a famous standard by Arthur Hamilton. Habuka (who arranged the selections with her producer) sings in both English and Japanese on Perfect, but English is the EP’s dominant language. And even though she grew up in a country where Japanese is the official language, Habuka is quite understandable in English. One can tell that she has put a lot of effort into achieving proficiency in English.
Another thing Habuka has going for her is an attractive sense of melody. The melancholy “Nobody, Not Really,” for example, has an appealing melody that is somewhere between Stevie Wonder and the Bacharach/David songbook (with a strong jazz influence). It’s a tune that, stylistically, would not have been out of place on one of Wonder’s early 1970s albums or on one of the Dionne Warwick albums from the 1960s that contained Bacharach/David compositions. However, “Nobody, Not Really” is much more jazz-influenced than the soul-pop recordings that Warwick made in the 1960s and 1970s.
The sultry “Come Over” recalls the way that jazz influenced some quiet storm artists in the 1980s. There are hints of Sade, Anita Baker and Angela Bofill on that track, which isn’t straight-ahead jazz but is a pleasing example of the way that jazz can influence R&B/pop. The same thing holds true on the title song, another example of jazz influencing the quiet storm side of R&B.
Habuka favors a bilingual approach on “Perfect,” performing the tune in both English and Japanese. To some listeners, the thought of a quiet storm tune having some Japanese lyrics might sound strange or inappropriate. But in fact, Habuka’s combination of English and Japanese lyrics works well with the song’s jazz-influenced R&B/pop melody. It doesn’t sound unnatural, awkward or forced at all.
Hamilton’s brooding torch ballad “Cry Me a River” is a standard that has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, ranging from hard bop saxophonist Dexter Gordon to Sammy Davis, Jr. to Björk to Ray Charles to Diana Krall. The Mexican band Maná even recorded a Spanish-language version. But the most famous version of all was cool jazz singer Julie London’s 1955 recording, and Habuka’s version is somewhat mindful of London’s classic performance. But Habuka version is far from a carbon copy of London’s. While London performed “Cry Me a River” as strictly a slow ballad, Habuka’s arrangement picks up the tempo in spots. Even so, Habuka doesn’t sacrifice any of the song’s brooding melancholia.
People who expect Perfect to be an EP of nothing but straight-ahead acoustic jazz are bound to be disappointed; again, Habuka is by no means a jazz purist, and there is no getting around the influence that R&B and pop/adult contemporary have had on her work. But those who don’t consider themselves jazz purists or jazz snobs will find that jazz, R&B and pop make for an agreeable combination on Perfect.
Review by Matthew Forss
Journalist/Entertainment Critic of Ariel Publicity
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)
The New York-based jazz songstress, Megumi Habuka, tackles lounge jazz and pop standards with ease on her latest four-track release, Perfect. The music is instrumental, vocal, and everything in-between. Megumi dazzles listeners with swooning vocals and an upbeat, jazzy ambiance that sets the stage for nothing but the best.
“Nobody Not Really” opens with a few pensive, yet glittering piano notes and Megumi’s airy, albeit wispy, vocals and lounge-jazz ambiance. The piano sounds merge into a medley with spritely, cascading notes and a deep French horn or trumpet that interrupts the melody with careful elegance. The swishy percussion kicks in with a little metallic chimes and a J-pop lounge standard that highlights almost every instrument used throughout the release on one song. The J-pop sound in this case stands for jazz, but it is nevertheless very pop-focused. The jazz veins are evident with the ambulating jazz lines, roving trumpet, fluttering piano keys, and experimental or improvisational percussion that is very bright, cheery, and multidimensional.
“Come Over” opens with a jazzy, ambient beat with a trudging trumpet and echoing sounds of sonic beauty glistening from the smooth keys of the keyboard and the swishy sounds of the percussion set. Megumi’s pop-centered vocals are as charming as the melodies throughout the song. The breezy trumpet-driven, piano-centered, and raw percussion sounds signal a classy, downbeat and down-tempo jazz tune with R&B-like vocals. The smooth jazz ambiance is more pronounced with a fading percussion set and sparkling tones of soft sounds at the end of the song.
“Perfect” begins with a few piano notes, light swishy percussion, and jazzy touches. Megumi’s vocals are in Japanese early in the song, but change to English within a minute. The onset of the English vocals lead into a vibrantly-textured percussion segment with rippling echoes of colorful and fluid sound on the electric guitar. An instrumental piece in the middle of the song is void of vocals and writhes with jazzy piano, swaying percussion, and melodic rhythms that are very rich in aural likeability.
“Cry Me A River” opens with a few quick percussion sounds on cymbals and drums. The piano appears, along with Megumi’s heartfelt, jazzy, and languid vocalizations in English. The soft, classy and jazz-focused composition picks up speed with more jaunty percussion and melodic instrumentation within two minutes. The vocal ranges are not too far from each other and the instrumentation is more varied than the other songs. The guitar and bass get a work-out mid-song, but it only increases the likeability-factor of the song.
Megumi Habuka’s short, four-track release is nothing to overlook. The candid vocals, breezy instrumentation, jazz-centered and pop-focused melodies, and improvisational abilities by Megumi and her band, create a compelling and noteworthy release. There were no notable shortcomings or misgivings throughout the album. Anyone with an interest in jazz standards, smooth jazz, and contemporary jazz with some variability will love Megumi.