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Enter the Character-Rich World of Sana Nagano

The violinist brings her joyous vision of noisy punk-jazz to life on her debut as a leader

Sana Nagano (Photo: Luke Marantz)
Sana Nagano (Photo: Luke Marantz)

In the realm of jazz violin, Sana Nagano represents the vibrant new blood. The heady mettle she coaxes from both her instrument and effects pedals owes as much to punk rock as it does to bebop. Japanese-born and Brooklyn-based, Nagano has been a vital member of the avant-jazz community for the last decade, having cut her teeth beside pianist Karl Berger, percussionist Adam Rudolph, guitar upstart Harvey Valdes, and violin/viola colleague Leonor Falcon, to name just a few.

With Smashing Humans, her debut as leader, the 36-year-old Nagano has brought her joyous vision of noisy punk-jazz to life. Akin to the high-octane freakouts of Deerhoof or John Zorn at his more metal-centric, her outré compositions bustle with breakneck-speed notes and time signatures galore. But the vibes exuded are pure fun; in Nagano’s world, being colorful is key.

“I really liked the idea of chromaticism that I learned in school [she has a B.M. from Berklee and an M.A. from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College] and I had a lot of fun with it—just the idea of notes,” Nagano explains when discussing her writing strategy for the album. “To me, it’s like colors but blending and creating different sounds. I was thinking it would be fun to approach rhythms like that as well.”

To achieve her vision, Nagano enlisted a trusty group, all of whom she has a history with: guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, acoustic bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Joe Hertenstein. “I knew them separately as friends and from different collaborations,” Nagano says. “It’s a great balance. Everybody has something that’s really strong that they’re contributing to the sounds. I like the idea of putting different people together to create a fusion of things. The music is more rhythmic and I wanted to make it a little challenging to see what happens! It’s more like a lot of experiments.”

Although Smashing Humans does mine experimental territory, the set’s eight compositions don’t go into full-on free-improv mayhem. Instead, Nagano and company have honed a muscular assault that’s also bursting with melodic hooks. “We followed the composed forms very strictly,” she says. “I didn’t want to rush into it. I wanted to make a nice set that I could be really nerdy about. Some songs I wrote in school, but I fixed them because it wasn’t the taste I liked anymore. I didn’t want to throw away some of the stuff, like a little melody that I wrote for something; I wanted to develop from it. It was more like how a tree grows. I just wanted to make it more of a natural process.”

On Zoom from her Brooklyn home, Nagano is a ball of energy. She excitedly tells of forthcoming recordings, including a trio set with Berger and drummer Billy Martin and sophomore efforts from Peach and Tomato (her strings project with Falcon) and avant-bluegrass outfit AstroTurf Noise. Her exuberance defines Smashing Humans, from her ecstatic violin squawks and squeals to the inspirations she gleaned from Tokyo pop culture—including both the animated, video game-style characters of the album art and her use of the Korg Miku Stomp (her noise pedal of choice, which incorporates the voice of the fictional Japanese holographic superstar Hatsune Miku).

True to her happy-go-lucky nature, she likens her aesthetic to an amusement park: “It was really fun to make this Smashing Humans project. To me, it was like building a little Disneyland of my own using the characters that showed up in the music that I imagined. It’s not just the compositions, it’s way more than that. It’s experiencing movements and colors. You get to go to this world and you get to experience it.”