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Tom Smith on Jazz-Folk for Samurai

Pirates versus ninja was so ten years ago. Things have moved on, and in Japan’s music world a new battle wages. With the country’s ninja population in decline, repairing wounds from the run-ins with bearded sea-farers, it’s down to the samurai to take up the offensive. And not just any samurai. Mute jazz samurai. And they’re up against twangy, indie-pop stars. Or at least they may have been if two of the biggest forces in each field hadn’t joined forces, forming one of the unlikeliest of matrimonies; pe’zmoku.

The unit consists of the instrumental outfit PE’Z – a popular jazz band in Japan – and a singer-songwriter going by the name “suzumoku”. Together, they launched their new project by slapping in a track as a closing theme to Bleach. Entitled ‘Gallop’, the song would become the anime’s 16th closer, appearing at the end of the ninth series, and it showed the snooty jazz-cats that it can be cool to be commercial.

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‘Gallop’ showed a new side to PE’Z, who, up until now, had predominantly released tracks without vocals. suzumoku’s contribution to the unit radically shook the foundations that PE’Z fans were familiar with. Suddenly, a whole new ‘pop’ element was present, and it worked on so many levels. For fans of jazz, it saw the medium venture into something more formulaic, with clear cut chorus and verses. While, for those coming from a pop-rock background, they could sample the progressiveness of jazz without being fluent in jive, or sporting a beret.

Both artists emerged from similar backgrounds too. Japan’s indie music scene is plagued with pay to play schemes, making it difficult for new bands to get a foot in the door. Instead, many turn to the streets for what are mostly illegal performances. It’s here where, at the turn of the millennium, a young PE’Z first started to perform live – mostly around Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. Over time, their following on the streets grew and grew, with reports of up to 600 people attending one guerrilla live. Impressive when you consider that the majority of venues in the area barely cater for half, if not a quarter, of that figure.

suzumoku (the editor of this blog just loves all-lower-case names) was also a street musician. At that time he was still in school, and playing in his local area of Shizuoka. However, for him, it wasn’t until he decided to make the move to Tokyo to pursue his music dream that things really took off for him. After arriving in 2007, and continually playing the street, his path managed to cross with PE’Z, who had become an internationally recognised band by that time. In fact, PE’Z were massive; they’d won New Artist of the Year 2003’s Golden Disc Awards, had collaborated with Tokyo Jihen’s Sheena Ringo, performed in Manchester, London and toured the United States, and even performed with Cyndi Lauper. And now, they’ve got one of the biggest honours of all; being part of Bleach.

Bleach: Complete Series 9 is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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