|April 2002||Morten Hansen is from Norway and is partial to Brazilian music and contemporary jazz and fusion with a little "punch".
You can reach Morten at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Welcome to "The Viking View"|
This is the first installment of what is intended to be a semi-regular column here at Smoothvibes.com. The main aim of the column will be to highlight artists who might be of interest to those who are tired of the typical radio-ready smooth jazz. A lot of people are unhappy with the way smooth jazz has developed and find that many artists compromise on their sound in order to get airplay on the format-driven smooth jazz stations, resulting in bland, formulaic music and lack of originality. In this column I plan to present artists that tend to fall between the cracks and not receive the attention they deserve because their music isn't "smooth enough" for radio, because they're from other countries, or because they're independent artists struggling to get their music out to the public without having the benefit of backing from a big record label. There will be no Boney James or Rippingtons reviews here; the big smooth jazz artists get plenty of coverage elsewhere. This does not mean I will be presenting artists whose music is inaccessible or experimental, but simply artists whom I'm certain many contemporary jazz fans would enjoy if they were only given more attention, artists whose music has a little more "punch". My criteria for picking artists are quite simple and subjective: mainly my personal taste and knowledge of the genre.
I will be be focusing not only on American artists, but also artists from other countries, especially Japan and Brazil. The topic of this month's main feature is one of Japan's leading fusion groups, Casiopea. Other Japanese groups and artists will be covered in upcoming issues.
Japan boasts several popular contemporary jazz/fusion groups and artists, and some of them, such as Casiopea and T-Square, have achieved a certain degree of popularity outside Japan. Compared to big American artists, however, most Japanese groups (even the two mentioned above) remain obscure to the average listener, and only a few artists have had their albums released outside Japan. Japanese contemporary jazz and fusion is occasionally criticized for being more about technical perfection than "feeling" or groove, sometimes resulting in records that are said to be a bit too "clean" or "sterile", but that has been said about American artists too (Steely Dan being a case in point). I find it more interesting to focus on the energy present in most Japanese fusion/contemporary jazz recordings. If you like dynamic, high-energy contemporary jazz/fusion performed by first-rate musicians, chances are you'll enjoy many Japanese artists. It's no secret that Japanese import CD's are more expensive than domestic releases, but I think and hope that those who decide on a buy will find that it was worth the extra money. Happy listening!
Casiopea was formed in the late 70's by guitarist Issei Noro, keyboardist Minoru Mukaiya, bassist Tetsuo Sakurai, and drummer Takashi Sasaki, and the quartet released its first, self-titled album in May of 1979. Containing high-energy, yet melodic contemporary jazz and fusion and featuring arrangements fleshed out by a horn section consisting of Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and David Sanborn, the album set the tone for the band's many future releases and remains one of their best. The song "Midnight Rendezvous" is still a concert staple.
The band's follow-up, Super Flight, was released only six months later, the short gap between the albums being characteristic of the band's prolific output. Thunder Live, the first of several live albums to be put out by the group, followed in 1980. This album marked the first apperance of drummer Akira Jimbo, who replaced Sasaki after the first two studio albums. Jimbo, a world-class fusion drummer renowned for his mastery of 4-way independence (independent movement of the four limbs), completed a line-up that would remain stable for most of the decade.
Several albums followed in rapid succession. 1981 saw the band seeking outside help to handle the production chores and turned to ace drummer Harvey Mason (today perhaps best known to smooth jazz fans as a member of Fourplay) for the album Eyes of the Mind, recorded in L.A. Mason's influence lent the group's music a more American sound, and his and Paulinho da Costa's percussion work contributed to making this one of the quartet's best releases. The album was recorded on 32-track digital equipment, practically unheard of in those days. Mason also acted as executive producer on the band's next album, Cross Point.
In 1982 followed Mint Jams, a live album recorded in Japan and containing first-rate examples of the band's live performances at this stage in their career. For their next studio album, the band once again turned to guest players. 4x4 - Four By Four, released in late 1982, features Lee Ritenour, Don Grusin, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason, and contains some very interesting arrangements with two players on each instrument. Ritenour also contributed a song and did some of the arrangements, including the surprising choice of Ravel's "Pavane Pour Un Infante Défunte".
By this time, Casiopea's reputation was starting to spread outside Japan, and in 1983 the band performed live in England for the first time. Later that same year, they recorded their tenth album, Jive Jive, in London. In the summer of the following year, the band embarked on a European tour, followed by a trip to New York for the recording of Down Upbeat, and in the summer of 1985, the band went out on the road yet again. After a series of concerts in Europe, the quartet travelled to Southeast Asia for the second leg of their tour, and a few months later, a new studio album entitled Halle was released. During the recording of this album, the relations between the group members were starting to get strained, but in the end, the band decided to stay together, perhaps encouraged by the huge success of Halle, which turned out to be the biggest-selling album in the band's history up to that point.
The years 1986, 1987, and 1988 saw Casiopea continuing its busy schedule of touring and recording. In between tours, the band recorded three more studio albums - Sun Sun, Platinum, and Euphony - and another live album, Casiopea Perfect Live II. This part of the band's career culminated with the release of World Live '88, a live album containing performances recorded in Brazil, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and the USA. While a couple of the band's mid-to-late 80's studio releases seemed to lack some of the spark that characterized their earlier output, this live album brilliantly captures the band's energy and high level of musicianship. Augmented by a horn section on several tracks, the band shines with first-rate performances. The members are all top-flight musicians, and there are plenty of solos to be heard here. Sakurai is a furious slapper, which he demonstrates to great effect in some slammin' bass-drum excursions with his rhythm section partner Akira Jimbo.
The year 1989 turned out to be a watershed in Casiopea's career. After a few years of tension within the band, drummer Akira Jimbo and bassist Tetsuo Sakurai left to pursue solo careers (to be covered in future editions of this column), and the two remaining members came close to calling it quits. It is the only year in the band's history that did not see the release of a studio or live album from the fusion foursome. A laserdisc was released, but no album. However, replacements were found, and in 1990, Casiopea returned with The Party, the first album to feature new members Yoshihiro Naruse and Masaaki Hiyama. With his energetic stage presence, Naruse seemed to inject some new energy into the band, and the quartet was set to enter the 90's with a more aggressive and slightly more hard-edged sound. One of Japan's premier bass players, Naruse has a distinct style (partly due to his frequent use of double strings), and like Sakurai before him, is a master slapper.
With this new line-up, Casiopea recorded two more studio albums, 1991's Full Colors and 1992's Active, as well as another live album, We Want More. In late 1992, Hiyama was replaced by Noriaki Kumagai on drums, and with him on board, the band recorded Dramatic, released in 1993. More varied both in terms of arrangements and songwriting, the album stands out as one of the band's best 90's releases.
In 1994, Casiopea was particularly busy. May saw the release of Answers, a new studio album recorded in Hawaii. For its 25th album, released only three months later, the band decided to try something different. The result was Hearty Notes, a kind of "unplugged" recording featuring only acoustic instruments. In December followed Asian Dreamer, a double CD containing new versions of 20 classic Casiopea songs.
Not about to slow down even after this busy year, Casiopea returned in 1995 with a new studio recording called Freshness. In 1996, the band appeared at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague, Holland following the recording of a new album in Amsterdam. Later that year, Kumagai left the band, and rather than finding a permanent replacement, the remaining members decided to call upon a couple of old friends for the recording of their next album, Light and Shadows. Reuniting with Harvey Mason, the band recorded three tracks in L.A., while former member Akira Jimbo occupied the drum chair on the remaining eight tracks.
With Jimbo back as an "associate member" and even contributing a few songs, Casiopea recorded two more studio albums, including 1999's Material, which marked the 20th anniversary of the band's debut. Following the release of the new CD, the band embarked on a tour of Japan, with a special anniversary concert taking place in Tokyo. With Jimbo behind the drums, the band was joined by some special guests during the second part of the show: former members Tetsuo Sakurai and Noriaki Kumagai, as well as keyboardist Hidehiko Koike, who was a member of the band in the 70's before they got a record deal. The show was recorded and filmed, and a double live CD called 20th came out in early 2000. The first disc is devoted mainly to recent material, but also includes a 37-minute medley structured as a flashback chronicling each year in the band's history. Each song in the medley is a year older than the previous one, until the band ends up playing "Space Road" from their first album in 1979. The second disc is devoted to the guest portion of the show, including some very potent drum and bass battles between the current and former members. The whole show was also released on VHS video and DVD.
With new studio albums, Bitter Sweet and Main Gate, having been released in 2000 and 2001, Casiopea has entered the 21st century as prolific and energetic as ever. The band has also entered the world of DVD's: The DVD version of their double live CD has already been mentioned above, and other notable titles available are Casiopea Live History Part 1 and Part 2, which both are double DVD's containing 2 concert recordings each, from 1985, 1986, 1988, and 1992. The first disc in Casiopea Live History Part 2 is the video version of the World Live '88 CD release mentioned above, with recordings from Brazil, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and the USA. Yet another DVD, The Mint Session (1997), contains live performances recorded in a studio and features guest spots by former bassist Tetsuo Sakurai, as well as drummer Akira Jimbo. All the DVD's mentioned in this paragraph are playable in all regions.
While Casiopea can be criticized for a certain sameness in their music, rarely straying far from their characteristic sound, the fact remains that their albums exhibit a vigour that is lacking from a lot of typical, run-of-the-mill smooth jazz releases. Another way of looking at it is to say that Casiopea has remained true to their sound and not yielded to the pressures that many American smooth jazz artists are subject to, putting out remarkably consistent albums throughout their 23-year recording career.
With a group whose career spans more than 20 years and 33 albums, it can be hard for the new listener to know where to start. The following is a list of 10 recommended Casiopea albums representing the best of the band's work, at least in the opinion of this writer:
Casiopea's complete discography can be found here.
Japanese imports are more expensive than domestic CD's, so for those who find that buying 10 CD's is a bit steep and want a quick introduction to Casiopea's music, a compilation might be the way to go. A great many Casiopea compilations have been released over the years, but the following seem to be the ones that are currently in print:
While Twins is the one that seems to be most expensive in the major American online stores, it is also the one that contains the largest number of tracks. The 30 tracks cover the band's career from the debut in 1979 up to 1994. The other compilations contain fewer tracks, but are all good introductions to the band's music.
Most of Casiopea's CDs are still in print, and many of them are available through American online retailers such as CDNow and Amazon. For a larger selection, try online stores that specialize in imports - Songsearch and Music By Email are two alternatives. JPC in Germany also carries imports, and so does Revolution International in the UK. CD Japan is a Japanese online store which has a website in English and accepts international orders. Also try Gemm for more listings. Gemm is also a good place to compare prices. Occasionally, used Casiopea items also show up on eBay and Half.com.
|Whatever Happened To Kevyn Lettau?|
Whatever happened to Kevyn Lettau? Between 1991 and 1995, singer Kevyn Lettau put out five excellent CD's of Brazilian-influenced contemporary jazz that received significant airplay. Her albums featured some of the genre's top names - Russell Ferrante, Billy Childs, Yutaka, Sergio Mendes, Dori Caymmi, Nathan East, Ricardo Silveira, Alex Acuña - and won her a large following both in the USA and in other countries. But then things suddenly went quiet. While Lettau continued to make occasional appearances on CD's by other artists, such as Bobby Lyle's The Power of Touch, Fourplay's 4, and Kleber Jorge's excellent Voltar Pro Rio, no more solo albums were released in the USA.
What a lot of fans don't know is that Lettau has released three CD's in Asia since her last U.S. album. Due to problems with her American record label, all her work after 1995's Universal Language has so far only been released outside the U.S., mainly in Japan and a few other Asian countries.
The Language of Flowers, produced by Michael Shapiro and Yutaka, came out in 1998 and contains 11 new songs all co-written by Lettau. Among her songwriting partners are Jeff Lorber (on six tracks), Yutaka, and Bill Cantos. While having fewer Brazilian influences than her earlier work, the album still showcases Lettau's melodic style, and her voice is as excellent as ever. Among the CD's highlights are "Little Things", which features retro keyboards like Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes in a contemporary arrangement; "You Can't Go Back", a funky track co-written by Bill Cantos; and the CD's closer, a beautiful ballad called "Far Away" featuring Scott Mayo's sax. In addition to Shapiro, Lorber, Cantos, and Yutaka, the personnel on the CD includes heavyweight players like Paul Jackson Jr., Jerry Watts Jr., and Dwight Sills.
In early 2000 a new CD called Walking in Your Footsteps - Songs of the Police (also called simply Police) was released. As the title indicates, this album contains Lettau's own versions of songs by British reggae rockers The Police, re-arranged and reharmonized by Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante. Lettau's highly personal interpretations and Ferrante's brilliant, jazzy arrangements lend familiar songs like "Message in a Bottle", "Every Breath You Take", and "King of Pain" a whole new mood. Produced by Lettau's husband and long-time musical partner, drummer Michael Shapiro, the CD features musicians such as Jerry Watts Jr., Luis Conte, Neil Larsen, and Jimmy Haslip. The CD was also released in Germany.
Little Things followed in the summer of 2001. Almost all the material on this CD was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, making for a less polished sound. The album includes reworkings of three tracks from The Language of Flowers, including the latter's title track, which has been given a new, and in this reviewer's opinion, much better arrangement, replacing the original's programmed instruments with the real thing. The personnel, as usual, includes a host of big names: Russell Ferrante, Bill Cantos, Mike Miller, Jerry Watts Jr., Michael Shapiro, Gary Meek, Luis Conte.
A 17-track compilation called Miracle Voice - The Best of Kevyn Lettau was released in Japan and other Asian countries in 1999.