Review: Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra – Out to Lunch

by Nathan Nicolau

In 2003, Otomo Yoshihide had a very controversial idea.

Just when he became a leading figure in the noise-rock scene in Japan, he disbanded his successful group Ground Zero. He instead decided to form a free jazz group fittingly named “Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra.” What would be their first debut release? A set of originals? Covers of previous Ground Zero material?

No. A remake of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!

Remaking Dolphy’s quintessential 1964 Blue Note album Out to Lunch! is enough to send jazz fans into a riot. However, leave it to an award-winning multi-instrumentalist and arranger to not only expand the material, but reaffirm it for an avant-garde/noise audience. Yoshihide’s Out to Lunch is not merely a recreation of an avant-garde staple as the album cover suggests. It is a new breed of animal all of its own. It evokes his earlier works with Ground Zero and mashes themwith jazz sensibilities. What results is a noise experiment, a jazz fantasia, and a tribute to an avant-garde pioneer all rolled into one.

Kicking off with “Hat and Beard,” Dolphy’s tribute to Thelonious Monk, Yoshihide immediately finds familiar ground with the material. He throws in electronic whirrs and beeps between heavily fragmented solos, akin to Monk’s own unorthodox playing. Instruments come and go as they please, all contributing to one massive soundscape of fresh ideas. Yoshihide’s arrangement uses silence to its advantage. Much like how the notes Monk didn’t play were as important as the ones he did, Yoshihide’s arrangement smartly relies on sparse, textural solos. Despite all the complex soundscapes, “Hat and Beard” is the closest thing to straight-ahead bebop throughout the entire album.

“Something Sweet, Something Tender” starts with multi-instrumentalist Alfred Harth playing a solo on bass clarinet worthy of Eric Dolphy himself. Supported only by Hiroaki Mizutani’s quiet walking bass lines, Harth’s playing is exactly what the song is titled. He begins softly, almost inaudibly. He eases through the melody before launching into a starkly passionate solo full of high-pitched embellishes. He then softly simmers down like a wave beginning to recede… Suddenly, he is joined by a thunderous wail by the orchestra as they play the ballad’s melody. The song then shifts into zen-like meditation. The brass section keeps a steady one note mantra as drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro accentuates with simple tom-tom solos. Every once in a while, a saxophone or trumpet breaks from the mantra and offers a short solo, only to shift back into the meditativestate. It is a beautiful and original rendition of the song. Tranquil, yet packs an emotional punch.

Yoshihide kicks things into high gear with his punk-rock-inspired cover of “Gazzelloni,” Dolphy’s tribute to classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni. “Gazzelloni” was typically Dolphy’s vehicle to show his chops on the flute. In its original incarnation, it’s a light and smooth mid-tempo blues with snazzy vibraphones and a swinging flute. Yoshihide’s arrangement couldn’t be more different. It could best be described as “punk-rock jazz” with its gain-heavy guitar, front and center drums, and fast brass solos. It’s enough to put many J-punk groups to shame.  A wild ride from start to finish, it’s the most thrilling four minutes of the entire album.

Following the rambunctious ride of “Gazzelloni” is a run-through of the title track. Yoshihide channels the ethos of 60’s free jazz players through atonal solos, bebop-influenced drumming, and a bridge that builds anxious suspense. Despite some use of electronic feedback, it could easily pass as a classic free jazz Impulse! recording. Something interesting that Yoshihide incorporates is periods of total silence. One expects the song to be over until the group wails the main melody again, only to end in silence once more then repeat.

“Out to Lunch” smoothly transitions to the album’s longest track, a combination of Dolphy’s “Straight Up and Down” and a Yoshihide original, “Will Be Back.” The results are hauntingly beautiful: A twenty-eight minute soundscape tone poem which sounds like a spiritually airy track straight from a Ground Zero album. Yoshihide smartly utilizes his group sparsely. Only for a few minutes at a time does the group play together. They each contribute one by one to a canvas supplied by the harsh electronic playing of Makoto Otsu and Sachiko Matsubara. However, as the track progresses, it transitions from free jazz to a strictly electronic noise piece. The horns begin to dissipate and are instead replaced with Otsu and Matsubara playing in unison over the sound of shuffles and murmurs. With “Straight Up and Down/Will Be Back,” Yoshihide and his group successfully bridges the gap between noise and jazz.

Any jazz fan worth their salt knows that Dolphy’s original classic is a staple of the free jazz movement of the 60’s. Because of this, the mere thought of remaking such a landmark album sounds blasphemous. This, unfortunately, has left many jazz fans turning away from Yoshihide’s experimental expansion of the album.A shame since they are missing out on some of Yoshihide’s greatest work and a fantastic starting point to his unique sound.

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