Senri Oe ‘Boys & Girls’ Tour in Chicago: Pop Meets Jazz, Jazz Meets Pop

November 11, 2018 @ 5:30 pm
PianoForte Studios
1335 South Michigan Ave
IL 60605
Senri Oe 'Boys & Girls' Tour in Chicago: Pop Meets Jazz, Jazz Meets Pop @ PianoForte Studios

BOYS & GIRLS, Senri’s first pure solo piano collection, connects the distinct eras in his career as a former Japanese superstar artist in the J-Pop arena, and his current career as a jazz artist.  With the new release, Senri brings fresh jazz energy by re-imagining some of his classic pop hits from the 80’s and 90’s. The album also includes two new compositions which reflect a limitless creative future in the genre he has embraced since he shifted gears and moved to New York to study jazz in 2008.

Back in another musical lifetime, decades before Senri Oe was wowing audiences at hotspots like Tomi Jazz, Zinc and the Jazz Gallery as one of NYC’s most versatile and dynamic jazz pianists, he was engaging the dreams of thousands in his native Japan as a J-Pop superstar.

A multi-faceted singer, songwriter, actor and radio host, he received a Japanese Grammy, topped the Billboard charts, headlined stadiums, performed on TV soap operas and had his hits used for major TV commercials. On Boys & Girls, his first pure solo piano collection, Senri artfully connects these distinct eras in his career, bringing fresh jazz energy in re-imagining some of his classic hits from the 80’s and 90’s. The collection includes two beautiful new compositions which hint at a limitless creative future in the genre he has embraced since he shifted gears and moved to New York to study jazz in 2008.

Senri has been on a dynamic roll since the 2013 release of his PND Records debut Boys Mature Slow, gaining powerful critical acclaim from jazz magazines and blogs throughout the U.S. and Japan for his adventurous piano style and ability to ensemble in a multitude of unique settings. That first album featured a two horn quintet. His follow-up Spooky Hotel (2013) featured arrangements performed by a full big band. Senri’s eclectic discography also includes Collective Scribble (2015), with him performing as part of a straight ahead trio; and Answer July (2016), which found him vibing with renowned jazz vocal greats Sheila Jordan, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens and Lauren Kinhan of the Grammy winning vocal ensemble New York Voices.

“Having taken all those different stylistic approaches in the past, the immediate choice that came to mind when I was thinking about my fifth album was to simplify and create a solo piano work,” says Senri. “Obviously, many fans of my pop music were surprised when I decided after 25 years to leave my pop career behind and pursue jazz. I have this great history I am proud of, but I am now immersed in the jazz world and am very happy and creatively fulfilled. My choice to revisit and re-imagine the hits from my past is not simply an exercise in nostalgia, but a reflection of my unique status as a mediator between pop and jazz. I’m right in the middle, embracing both styles.

“Some of my pop fans have told me they respect my decision to go into the jazz world but they don’t like listening to jazz,” he adds. “Some will say, jazz is jazz, pop is pop, but to me, music is music. I still love pop even though I’m standing in the jazz arena. I created this album as a bridge in the hopes that people who don’t naturally listen to jazz can still enjoy these classic hits even though I am telling the story differently now. It’s pop meets jazz, jazz meets pop.”

The moment that sparked Senri’s concept of presenting his pop hits as solo piano works came when he performed the elegant ballad “Rain” at a small jazz bar in the Silicon Valley. When he finished, an American patron, unaware that the song had been a Japanese pop hit, told the pianist he should put lyrics to it and sing it. Of course, the original version had lyrics sung by Senri. “At that moment,” he says, “I realized I can do jazz arrangements of my pop tunes, and people would enjoy them.”

Helping bring Senri’s vision of Boys & Girls to life is his co-producer and longtime mentor Junko Arita, a veteran recording and concert producer and international conductor who was his teacher when the pianist attended the School of Jazz at The New School, the second conservatory at the Greenwich Village based university. She has been an important mentor ever since. A native of Japan also, Junko was familiar with Senri’s pop star history, but her status as what he calls “a jazz cat” made her the perfect sounding board and guiding force as he endeavored to create a balance between pop and jazz.

“Her advice during the process was invaluable,” he says. “She would say things like my arrangement was good but I shouldn’t forget the original pop version, which was also excellent. So I would revise accordingly. She would often tell me I put in a bunch of modal ideas and was creating arrangements that were too original and different from the pop version. 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.”

Boys & Girls opens with the romantic ballad “Arigato,” which was originally famous for its use in a popular Japanese soap opera. Senri 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.” Senri wrote the title track, the lush and whimsical, ultra-melodic “Boys & Girls,” when he was only 23. It’s about couples at a prom and then meeting for a reunion ten years later and seeing if the same chemistry is there.

Other fresh re-workings include the soulful yet lighthearted “Never See You Again,” which was his biggest J-Pop single ever; the funky, high energy “Wallabee Shoes,” presented here in delightful Stride-piano fashion; the bright and optimistic love song “You”; and the fun, free-flowing “10 People, 10 Colors,” which Senri originally wrote for a candy commercial when he was 25. The collection also features two new compositions that help bridge the gap from past to present – the stark, reflective “Flowers” and the gently impressionistic “A Serene Sky,” which draws on Senri’s classical and new age influences.

Despite his numerous accolades, Senri remains humble and admits that even now in his later 50’s, he is always trying to figure out what unique offering he has to contribute to the jazz idiom. Though he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to finally record a solo piano album, he has long thrived on building relationships with other artists and creating fresh musical collaborations. He has also worked as a producer in New York, sharing his insight and experience with others. His sense of community extends beyond the Big Apple to his native Japan, where he recently produced and arranged a collaborative recording by Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer and famed Japanese Enka singer Mika Shinno.

Senri’s powerful ties to the Japanese music and arts scene include writing as a contracted composer for Sony Japan and working with Japanese singers who would like to follow the path he’s pioneered in Manhattan, including highly acclaimed artists Sayuri Ishikawa, Tamio Okuda, Ken Hirai and Misato Watanabe. For the past seven years, Senri has hosted the radio show “Live Depot” in Japan, interviewing and performing with a wide variety of Japanese and American artists.

“I’ve been on an interesting full circle kind of journey in my life,” says Senri. “I loved listening to jazz when I was growing up, and in my teen years I started studying it with an eye towards performing. But then I was offered the chance to work as a singer-songwriter and signed a deal with Sony Japan that set me on the road to becoming a pop star. Now, a decade after I chose to move to New York to pursue jazz, I am living out the second chapter of my musical life. It’s like jazz was in this cabinet that I set aside, and I opened it up at 47 to explore new creative worlds. 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, ten years on, it is the most comfortable and natural thing in the world.”