There’s an unusual and fascinating story behind this record, which is, frankly, a strange bit of music. The story has the effect of making the strangeness a bit stranger.
Senri Oe is a pop star and actor in Japan, a highly successful one, award-winning and popular. But it took the mere moment of catching a glimpse of his own reflection for him to realize that he wanted to be a jazz musician, and that jazz was his first love. Perhaps, like me, you’re already sympathetic, and you may sense echoes of Curtis Stigers, who went from being a pop singer to quite a good, stylish jazz singer with at least one superb record to his name, You Inspire Me.
Oe started to study jazz piano at the age of 47, and now, four years later, he’s made his debut with this disc. Which is strange. It’s very finely recorded, some of the best production I’ve heard in a while, and the playing by everyone is strong, precise and skilled. Oe himself appears to have decent chops. Along with the immediate sonic impression, though, the music never comes into focus.
The pianist’s (and composer, he wrote all the material) stylistic influences are clear, but they don’t overpower his playing: he loves Monk both in his tunes and in the way he tosses out short phrases and pushes them back and forth over the beat. And his feeling for harmony and sense of decoration come out of Bill Evans. Excellent pedigree. The result is that Oe is an accomplished student musician, but not yet a mature jazz player. He can write pleasant, swinging, Monk-like tunes, none of which leave an impression, and he can improvise phrases with ease through the chord changes. His solos never come together into a meaningfull whole, though, they’re just a series of decent, but disconnected fragments, and since discontinuity is most definitely not his aesthetic, he never makes anything out of his raw materials.
The record does not sound bad, because it’s not. But it’s also not good. Oe has the music under his fingers, swings nicely, is a solid ensemble player, all the tools seem to be there. He can check off the box for thinking about being a jazz musician, not it seems to think about what to say when playing jazz.