Japanese jazz pianist Senri Oe was a stadium-scale pop star in the 1980s and ’90s, performing on lavishly designed stages with choreographed dancers and exploding fireworks. He even had a body double cavort in front of the crowd while the real Oe was backstage.
“One time, the scenery was the Greek Parthenon,” he tells JazzTimes. “And darkness fell over all of our vision. I hid, and fake me went out in the same costume. I was already [offstage], and [my double] popped out right in front of you. I went this way, but fake me was still singing.”
One day in 2007, the singer/songwriter walked by a glass façade, stopped, and took a good look at himself. “I saw someone unknown in the shop window. That was me. He was not smiling in the reflection,” he says. “I tried to smile, but in my eyes, inside, I was very serious. I wanted to go to New York to learn jazz.”
Ever since his 1983 major-label debut for Sony, Waku Waku, Oe had seen the music industry’s highs and lows, and at 47, he was struggling to feel relevant as a pop singer. “Pop music, the best time is 20, always,” he says. “I was thinking about how life is one time, so limited.”
He decided to look up the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan, which he’d been fascinated by for years; in the early ’90s, Oe had stayed nearby and caught conversations between young New School students in the streets. “For me, jazz music was in the cabinet, but someday, I wanted to try to learn theory,” he said.
Oe got a teacher, bassist Osamu Kawakami, who had played with the alto-sax legend Sadao Watanabe, and the pair cut a demo as an application to the New School. Soon after, the pianist got a letter that changed his life.
“I got mail from the New School—accepted,” Oe says, still somewhat blown away. He went to the Sony office, tendered his resignation from pop, and moved to 13th Street near the New School. One frigid January day, he walked into his first day of orientation—and hit some bumps in the road.
“We were going to do F blues,” he says of a preliminary jam with his classmates. “I knew the blues, but I didn’t know jazz blues form in 12 bars.” He counted on the downbeat rather than the upbeat and brought the jam to a halt. Soon after, he suffered a left-hand injury that took him away from the piano for three months.
Instead of bemoaning his lack of progress, Oe paused and absorbed music. “That time changed me a lot because I tried to listen to some other people playing,” he says. “The music is not standing in the center of the stage highlighted. No … it’s communication. Maybe someone’s phrase is like a catch ball, and I respond to him or her.”
After recovering from his injury, Oe righted the ship, improved as a jazz player, and graduated from the New School in 2012. The next year, he made his debut on PND Records, Boys Mature Slow, featuring a two-horn quintet. He tried a variety of configurations: a big band on 2013’s Spooky Hotel, a saxophone-led trio on 2015’s Collective Scribble, and a variety of vocalists (including Sheila Jordan and Becca Stevens) abetting 2016’s Answer July.
Clean, melodic and funky, Oe takes inspiration from Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Thelonious Monk. “If I find the dominant seventh in the left hand, that gives me a very powerful moment,” he says, playing invisible sweeps in the air. “I can twist it, the mood, the air.”
Oe’s latest album, 2019’s Hmmm, is his definitive jazz recording to date: nine breezy, appealing originals recorded with bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Ari Hoenig. He recorded it directly in the wake of his father Tokio’s death from cancer. Prior to recording, Oe flew back to Osaka to see his dad for the last time and the pair took a toast of nonalcoholic beer; the day Oe returned to New York, he learned his father had died.
Although he was devastated, Oe made buoyant music. Hmmm tracks like “Re:Vision,” “Indoor Voices,” and “When Life Was a Pizza Party” embrace a modern approach that doesn’t sound much like J-pop or traditional jazz. Catch his regular gig at Tomi Jazz on Third Avenue, and you’re in for a treat: Oe vamping on the rickety house piano like Erroll Garner, grinning and gesturing at the tiny audience like he’s still a pop phenom.
“I was riding a rollercoaster of good and bad things and felt like I was in emotional limbo,” Oe, now 59, wrote on his website about the difficult gestation of Hmmm. “[But] I make music to get fresh air.”
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