In 2008, Senri Oe shelved his highly successful 25-year career as a Japanese pop star and actor to move to New York City in pursuit of a childhood dream—becoming a jazz musician. As a lyricist, composer, and arranger since 1983, Oe built a robust Japanese popular music (J-Pop) career, releasing 45 singles and nearly 20 albums, winning the Japanese Gold Disc and FNS Pop Music Awards, and hosting a talk show on Japan’s national broadcasting network, NHKHe. Enrolling at The New School at age 47, Oe studied under Junior Mance, Aaron Goldberg and Toru Dodo. Since graduating in 2012, Oe has worked tirelessly to embed himself in New York’s jazz ecosystem. Having established his own record label, PND Records and Music Publishing, Oe plays monthly at Tomi Jazz New York, is a regular pianist for Morning Musuko, a 17-piece big band specializing in Japanese popular music (J-pop), and has now released three albums. Following his state-side debut, Boys Mature Slow (PND Records, 2012) and sophomore release, Spooky Hotel (PND Records, 2013), Oe released his third album Collective Scribble (PND Records, 2015) this past February.
This Thursday, March 19th, 2015, Oe comes to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of his new record with saxophonist Arun Luthra and bassist Jim Robertson supporting. We sat down with Senri recently to learn more about his shift to New York and his time since.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us about your desire to become a jazz musician? What prompted you to leave your previous career?
Senri Oe: The first time that I came across jazz was finding Bill Evans and Antônio Carlos Jobim at a used record shop when I was 15 years old. I was amazed. There was something complicated about the music—the fact that you could feel sadness and joy at the same time. I purchased some jazz theory books at that time and started trying to learn how to play but it seemed too difficult. Around that time, I had also started to compose songs with lyrics, beginning to develop myself as a singer-songwriter. I began getting gigs as a pop artist and once I was offered a record deal, I quit learning jazz altogether. But even throughout my career, jazz always remained somewhere inside my heart.
One day, when I was in my forties, I saw my face in the reflection of a store window and I wasn’t smiling. I looked at myself and was struck, “Who are you? You have to do what you want to do.” I knew at that point that I had to follow jazz because it had been eating away at me all of that time. However, I barely knew anything about jazz at my age—I didn’t even know the difference between open and closed positions on the piano. When I got accepted to The New School, I was surprised. I told my manager about the news and he told me I had to quit pop immediately. That was eight years ago.
TJG: Tell us about your time at The New School. Were there any key learning experiences that you can recall?
SO: At first it was about adjusting expectations. I had to let go of my anxiety around trying to accomplish something big in a short time frame. I also had to adjust to a learning gap. I remember on the first day of orientation, students assumed that I was an accomplished player because of my age and approached me for conversation. Once they figured out that I couldn’t play they formed groups with their other cohorts and for a while I felt left out. I was trying to learn from my 18-year-old classmates at the time—it was definitely humbling. But, little but little, once I was able to make good music, my classmates approached me and we began to learn together. I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t have to rush it. It took me four and half years to finish the program. I also learned that I could focus on crafting the expression and feeling of my playing, even if I felt rhythmically challenged or if I couldn’t play really fast lines.
Aaron Goldberg was really helpful in encouraging me to rely less on charts—learning how to sing the tunes I was playing by memory. Aaron also opened my mind up rhythmically to the power of syncopation. Junior Mance taught me how to be a listener. He is a very open man. Toru Dodo opened my mind to reharmonization. He gave me some hard exercises that have now become like a stretch routine in the mornings.
TJG: Are you interested in the convergence of jazz and J-Pop?
SO: I wasn’t that interested in it until recently actually. It’s not that shaping J-Pop in the context of jazz is difficult; it’s just that I think they’re very different. When I left pop, I really only wanted to follow jazz. The new jazz identity was more critical of the pop identity. I would look back, somewhat arrogantly, and critique the harmonic, rhythmic, melodic elements of my past work. But now I’ve resumed an interest in trying to merge the two. Good music is good music—its all true for me. Maybe at some point they can merge organically.
I feel like I sort of betrayed my Japanese audience by quitting pop music in a certain way. They were really disappointed for a while. I am excited to return to Japan for this Blue Note Tokyo run I have in May to reconnect with that audience.
TJG: What can you tell us about the new record, Collective Scribble?
SO: This album was about getting back to basics for me, trying to illustrate my relationship to melody. I try to make music with my friends – people that are reliable not only musically but also personally. The album is sort of about providing a context for small talk between friends. There are so many talented jazz musicians that make up the contemporary “pie” of work. I am already 55 years old and only have so much time until the end of my life. I am trying to figure out what my unique offering to the larger pie can be. My choice in instrumentation for this record – bass, sax, and piano is part of that. I wanted to do something without a drummer. For this album, I actually ended up composing 54 songs from which we selected the final 12. Yacine Boulares couldn’t make the gig but I’m excited to play with Arun Luthra, who I’ve only played with once with before. I will try to erase my canvas and draw something new with Arun at The Jazz Gallery.
TJG: What does your music deal with? What is its purpose?
SO: Music for me is a seed. If you add water, it may initially seem like nothing is happening, but in a couple of weeks or months, growth will occur. We can’t give up on hope. For example, you know the anniversary of the Tōhoku Tsunami is this month—it was a tragic experience for Japan, but someday the country will recover if we don’t’ give up, just like a seed. So the music is always dealing with that theme. Hopefully, through my music, I can connect people, bring them closer to love and peace.
Senri Oe will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, March 19th, 2015. This performance features Senri Oe on piano, Arun Luthra on saxophone, and Jim Robertson on bass. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for members. Second set is $10 general admission and $8 for members. Purchase tickets here.