(Heads Up, 2005)
Hiroshima is, by far, my favorite jazz group, so if this review seems a little biased, you are wrong. It is very biased. The band's first completely instrumental CD, Obon, was released 25 years after their first CD and 31 years after the band initially formed. This is the band's 13th recording and, as usual, contains a wonderful blend of Eastern tradition within a Western genre.
Those familiar with Hiroshima know their instrumentals are generally their best tracks. (Of course there are always exceptions such as "Thousand Cranes" from East.) Obon starts right off in familiar territory with "Swiss Ming." After an initial gong sound signifying the East, Western-style bass and piano lay down the tempo. The sax drives the piece for a while until the koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) takes a turn. The fast-paced melody keeps you jumping as various instruments take the lead. If this track doesn't grab you, then perhaps this style of jazz isn't for you.
"Originating in Buddhist legend, Obon is a time to remember the ancestors, relatives and friends who have died. Filled with reverence and gratitude, it's also an occasion to raise the spirit in celebration" (promo material). Hiroshima, a band whose founding members were U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, pays tribute to the 60th anniversary of the time when Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in the U.S. during World War II.
The (almost) title track, "Obon Two-Five," celebrates 25 years of recording for the band. This is arguably the best track on the CD. If you have ever experienced the sound of taiko drums, you know the percussion from this instrument doesn't simply hit your ears. It pulses through you. While best felt live (yes, I meant felt, not heard), if your stereo is good enough, you will get a semblance of what I'm talking about. Like the prior mentioned track, the koto and the sax control the direction of this arrangement.
With 11 original compositions on Obon, there might be a chance for a bad track. That isn't the case here. Some tracks are definitely more engaging than others, but this is quality music. While Hiroshima's line up has changed some over the years, the current members include Dan Kuramoto (tenor and soprano sax, flutes, shakuhachi, keyboards), June Kuramoto (koto), Kimo Cornwell (piano, keyboards), Danny Yamamoto (drums), Dean Cortez (bass) and Shoji Kameda (taiko, percussion). Guest musicians on this CD include Kenny Endo (tsutsumi, percussion), Allen Hinds (guitar), Richie Gajate Garcia (percussion), Mary Garcia (flan), Karen Hwa-Chee Han (er-hu), Munyungo Jackson (percussion), Ira Nepus (trombone), Dean Taba (acoustic bass), DJ T-Rock (scratching), Princess and Master Noga (the floor -- whatever that means).
There are so many flavors of jazz (smooth, Dixieland/New Orleans, swing, freestyle, ragtime, etc.) that I think Hiroshima's style should have a name. How about "jazzmine"? Jasmine is a popular tea from the East. Jazz got it's start in the West. Hiroshima blends music from the East and West. Hence, the jazzmine sound. (If someone else has already used this name to describe this music, note that I have not intentionally stolen this moniker). As an avid fan of jazzmine, I highly recommend Hiroshima's CDs. Obon is an excellent choice to introduce yourself to their style if you haven't heard them before. Or you could go back 25 years to the band's self-titled debut album and work your way through two and a half decades of great jazzmine. If you are already familiar with the band, then you know what to expect.
by Wil Owen