As Otomo once said to us, “it’s not what you play that matters, but how you play it”. The “how” of music making is everything for this composer, arranger and improviser and it was naturally that he changed his proceedings in the last decade or so. From the heavy sampled madness of both his electronic music and the group Ground Zero, in which he mixed his love of jazz and rock and dealed with an overdose of sound information, Otomo Yoshihide turned minimal, reducing the materials to the essential. When in came to Portugal in 2004 to play in the Jazz em Agosto festival, he showed that in two gigs. With the Canadian turntablist Martin Tétreault he used his decks without records, only manipulating the pickups and the needles with paper, rubber and metal round surfaces, forging a brutal noise music with very little. And with the New Jazz Quintet he used an electric guitar not to phrase, not to play chords, but to produce controlled feedbacks. That’s what we hear in “Live in Lisbon”, the (partial) recording of that memorable concert, the last of this group that he converted to an ensemble of eight instrumentalists and singers from pop and experimental backgrounds, and then an orchestra of twelve, with extra Japanese traditional and electronic musicians to give it other colors and other personality.
The “what” of the Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet (also known as ONJQ), as the name of the band already manifests, is jazz, but the “how” of the jazz this combo plays is rather different from everything else we can find these days under that label. There’s an exotica and ambient quality on it, as if the purpose was to mutate jazz into an alien and at the same time very familiar form of music, a contradiction of terms in itself but precisely the key to give us this ambivalent impression of something simultaneously accessible and strange. Similarly to what characterizes the Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Ensemble and the Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Orchestra, this quintet with Mats Gustafsson as special guest performed covers of great jazz tunes by the likes of Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, among other be bop and free jazz standards, adding to the repertoire a pop song (“Eureka”, by Jim O’Rourke, was a common choice, and it’s still used by the present orchestra) and Otomo’s own compositions. We immediately recognized pieces like “Serene”, “Lonely Woman”, “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” and “Song for Che” (this one of good memory for the jazz fans in Portugal who remember the tribute Haden did in a concert to the liberation movements of Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, when the colonial dictatorship was living its final years) but the feeling that we were crossing known territory soon vanished, because what the band did with it was new and bizarre.
Some of those unorthodox interpretations are documented in this fantastic CD that gives us the opportunity to listen with more time and focus to the very special virtues of someone like the alto saxophonist Tsugami Kenta, who deserves a wider recognition. It’s very fulfilling and fun to follow him in open and free situations with his Paul Desmond / Lee Konitz stylings, as it is to catch Gustafsson in a context in which he has to moderate his expressionistic impetus. This means you shouldn’t miss this album, ‘cause you’ll certainly find things that you don’t even imagined possible.