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On an early August evening in the Los Angeles suburb of Studio City, Senri Oe (oh-AYE) held court before a sold-out predominantly Japanese audience, which came to the intimate 120-seat Upstairs at Vitello’s Supper Club to hear their fellow countryman perform tunes from his first-ever solo-piano jazz album Boys & Girls — and selections from his previous four ensemble albums — on a grand piano at center stage. After an engaging hour of melodic tunes interspersed with Oe’s charming, heavily accented anecdotes about many of the pieces, he was surrounded in the tiny outer vestibule by a throng of older fans taking selfies and waiting for him to autograph CDs.
For Oe, this kind of intimate gig — which mirrors those he’s done over the past few years in his adopted hometown of New York City at hotspots like Tomi Jazz, Zinc and the Jazz Gallery — is worlds away stylistically and venue-wise from his heyday as a “J-Pop” superstar in his native Japan.
Starting in 1985, when his song “10 People, 10 Colors” was used in a commercial for a breath-freshening candy and became a hit single, Oe enjoyed a solid decade of hits as a vocal artist on Billboard’s Japanese pop charts, including the No. 1 single “Never See You Again” and the No. 1 album Apollo. Also the winner of a Japanese Grammy, Oe regularly engaged in 80-date tours, during which he headlined before tens of thousands at arenas (including the Budokan) in a white suit, surrounded by a large ensemble featuring dancers and horns. The pianist describes his brand of J-Pop as “80s synth-pop with a huge influence of artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and U2, sometimes with strings and the Philadelphia soul sound.” His YouTube clips are campy and, if you’re into that sort of thing, fun to watch. His vocals are decent, his moves spirited, his ditties catchy. Like most American pop stars, he was wealthy and had to wear a disguise so as not to be recognized in public. Yet unlike most of his American counterparts, he lived humbly, in what he describes as “an old Japanese-styled frat house with a botanical garden and a tea ceremony room.”
Oe has come a long way from his heyday as a pop star. The crowds at his performances these days are comparatively miniscule and quite a bit older, yet his artistry goes much deeper. The music he writes, records and performs today is the fulfillment of an early childhood dream that stirred within him even as thousands of fans continued to idolize him as a pop singer. But the music he made then seems like fluff when compared to the wide-ranging piano skills, compelling melodies and imaginative improvisations he has created both onstage and in the studio since releasing his debut jazz album, Boys Mature Slow, in 2013.
Over the past five years, Oe has earned critical acclaim from jazz magazines and blogs throughout the United States and Japan for his adventurous piano style and ability to perform in a multitude of unique settings. That first jazz album featured a two-horn quintet. His follow-up, Spooky Hotel, featured big-band arrangements. On 2015’s Collective Scribble, he helmed a straight-ahead trio, and the following year’s Answer July was his most ambitious collection yet, with guest vocalists Sheila Jordan, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens and Lauren Kinhan.
With the exception of two original pieces — the stark, introspective “Flowers” and the impressionistic, classical- and New Age-influenced “A Serene Sky” — Boys & Girls (PND Records) features jazz re-imaginings of some of his ’80s and ’90s vocal hits. The set opens with the romantic ballad “Arigato,” originally renowned for its appearance in a popular Japanese soap opera. Oe calls it a “true song of appreciation, and as we part at the end of this year, our hope is we will see each other in the next.” He includes a lighthearted twist on “Never See You Again” and a whimsical stroll through “10 People, 10 Colors.”
[caption id="attachment_14944" align="alignleft" width="300"] “I admit that many fans of my pop music were shocked when I decided after 25 years to shift gears, and I know some still don’t get it. But fortunately, others do and embrace it.” - Photos by: Jonas Gustavsson[/caption]
Keeping the frenetic tempo the same as the original, he turns “Wallabee Shoes” into a brisk stride-piano romp. He penned the lush title track “Boys & Girls” when he was 23. As he nears 60, he finds an even deeper emotional connection to its theme of a carefree couple dancing at a prom and reuniting 10 years later, wondering if they’ll still have the same chemistry.
Oe grew up listening to jazz and by his teen years began studying it with an eye toward performing. Yet he also loved writing and singing pop tunes, and before he was 20, he was courted by Epic/Sony Japan to sign as a singer/songwriter. His debut album was released when he was 23. “There were times when I really wanted to inject some jazz into my vocal tunes, but with my main target being pop fans, the label didn’t want that,” he says. “So I introduced bits of the jazz element gradually, while still keeping my overall love for jazz mostly in the drawer, so to speak.”
At the age of 47, after nearly a quarter-century on the J-Pop treadmill, he reflected on his life and the dreams he had yet to fulfill. Driven in part by an inspirational message from a popular radio-host friend named DJ Honey just before she passed away, he moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Jazz at The New School. One of his teachers there was Junko Arita — a veteran recording and concert producer and conductor — who, as a co-producer of Boys & Girls, helped Oe realize his vision of crafting an album that strikes an artful balance between pop and jazz.
“Her advice to me was invaluable throughout,” Oe says. “She didn’t mince words. She would tell me, for instance, that an arrangement I had was good but that I was putting in too many modal ideas and taking too many liberties with the arrangement. To keep the spirit of the project authentic, she told me I shouldn’t stray too far from the original melody of the pop version. So I would revise accordingly. She stressed that I should keep the songs catchy, simple, straightforward and beautiful — that I really didn’t have to overthink the tunes or change anything.”
“I admit that many fans of my pop music were shocked when I decided after 25 years to shift gears, and I know some still don’t get it,” Oe laughs. “But fortunately, others do and embrace it. I’m also grateful for the many fans I have who weren’t even aware of my past. A decade after making what many considered a risky move to New York, I am living out what I call the second chapter of my musical life, playing music that’s equally fun for me and a lot less predictable. I am thrilled that I have had the opportunity to perform and record jazz for so many years now, to such appreciative audiences, and now, 10 years on, it is the most comfortable and natural thing in the world.” - Jonathan Widran