TOKYO (TR) – A show by jazz ensemble Shibusashirazu usually starts off innocently enough: the reed and brass players march onto the stage playing a progressively building number. They take their seats in a semi-circle in the center as more members – guitarists, drummers, and violin players – fill out their places behind them. Slowly, guitar chords and percussion are contributing rhythm to the mix. Before long the thirty-strong membership is nearly causing the walls of the venue to throb.
At the center of the commotion is the band’s shaggy-haired and hunched-over conductor, Daisuke Fuwa. With his back to the audience, steady plumes of smoke rise from the menthol cigarette in left hand as he gives direction to his crew with his right. He intermittently calls for solos, whereby each player stands and gives it their best shot in the spotlight.
Go-go dancers in sparkling cocktail dresses and fishnets enter from the sides to join the band’s master of ceremonies, Shinichi Watabe, as he attempts to provide a semblance of order to the carnival atmosphere by parading around in his colorful happi coat and hachimaki (headband). Off to the stage’s edges, butoh performers then up the insanity to the nth degree, slinking their powder-white bodies atop isolated platforms from where they twist their almost naked frames and crinkle their faces.
Certainly there is no other group like Shibusashirazu.
But perhaps the two-decade-old band’s most bizarre move to date came last year with the release of the compilation album “Shibuzen” on the io imprint of Avex group, known for churning out J-pop fluff from the likes of such cutesy princesses as Ayumi Hamazaki and Kumi Koda. This was followed by the January Avex release “Shibuki,” which showcases more of Shibusashirazu’s free-form sound – something Fuwa says will never be compromised.
“Shibusashirazu is united by its music, art, performance, and vision,” explains Fuwa, outfitted in a baggy olive sweater, of the group’s holistic mandate during an interview at the Tokyo office of Avex. “The group is the total of these elements.”
Avex, which approached the band during a music festival in Hokkaido, has given Shibusashirazu opportunities that did not exist while it was releasing albums on its own label Chitei.
“The biggest difference is the studio atmosphere and the equipment,” Fuwa says, puffing on a stick from his pack of Gudang Garam cigarettes. “Most of our music has been recorded in a live setting. But for ‘Shibuki’ it was all done in a studio, where we could edit each tune many times.” But, emphasizes Fuwa, these added luxuries did not change their sound.
The opening track begins with a series of horns accompanied by clapping. Guitar power chords intrude to escalate the pace just before the horns return to the forefront. A sax solo then interrupts to bring everything back down a notch. The piece surges into a free-jazz explosion of drums and bass before eventually transitioning to “Hamachikaze,” which is more instrumental mayhem. A romantic shift is found on “A Song for One,” a slow number where torch-singer vocals drift around a lilting saxophone.
With previously used traditional Japanese instruments like the stringed shamisen absent on “Shibuki,” Japanese elements do appear on “We are a Fisherman Band,” which possesses an ukiyo-e motif with the band proclaiming a love for the sea as horns and guitars blaze:
Everyday singing. Japanese old spell.
Everyday singing. Fisherman’s magic words.
Other tracks could serve as festival tunes (“Dust Song”) or as vehicles for one to tour through the catalogs of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (“Nakajimazaimokuten Co. Ltd.”).
In its first incarnation, back in 1989, the band had 20 members that served as background music for a single installment of “Hakken no Kai,” an ongoing avant-garde theater show that dates back to the 1960s.
“Afterwards at the reception,” remembers Fuwa, “the members gathered. We proposed that we continue to play in the future as a band.”
The band’s own Chitei label in 1993 released their initial albums, the live recordings “Shibusamichi” and “Dettaramen.” That same year, Shibusashirazu, which might be translated to mean “never refined,” played the Yokohama Jazz Promenade. “Be Cool,” from 1995, marked their first studio release. By 1998, the band had four full-lengths and a tour of Europe under its belt.
Membership has always been mercurial, with musicians and dancers changing show by show depending on the venue or schedule. “We used to have more mature musicians,” Fuwa says, “but they’ve since quit. As time has gone by we have become a mix of generations and musical interests.” In the band’s smallest incarnation, Chibizu, which typically includes between 5 and 10 players, Fuwa is featured on bass and contrabass. With the full orchestra on stage, the number of performers could swell to over 40.
The existence of butoh performers, who change makeup and costumes as the show unfolds, and other dancers tend to take the edge off any pretension that could potentially exist. “The first members were more serious,” Fuwa says of his butoh troupe, “but the present dancers are more for comedy; of course it depends on their character.”
How everything fits together in a live setting is determined by the artists and musicians just prior to the start. Up until two years ago, the band had a stage coordinator, but the band found this to be too restrictive. Now there is no set list, and the playing and acting are entirely improvised.
“The direction of the show could depend on anything – the weather, the feeling of the musicians, the atmosphere of the venue,” says Fuwa. He claims that he has no idea how a particular show will go beforehand. “During the first five minutes of yesterday’s show the musicians didn’t make any sounds,” Fuwa explains of a show in Chiba Prefecture. “However, the butoh dancers were doing their thing without music to surprise the audience.”
A mix of jazz fans, foreigners, and the curious can be found in equal numbers at a Shibusashirazu show. That wasn’t the case before the band’s first appearance at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2001. “At first we had a lot of jazz fans,” Fuwa says of the early years, “and then the Fuji Rock Festival exposed our music to a much wider audience.”
Following each of the band’s four tours of Europe, Fuwa found the reaction of the international audiences to generally be the same as in Japan. “All audiences seem shocked by our performances at first,” he explains, “but by the end they are dancing and singing together.”
The live DVD “Shibutabihazime,” which was released by Avex io in February and recorded last year at Shibuya’s O-EAST club, shows a typical finish. “Senzu,” with its rock-guitar opening transitioning to a soaring, brass- and reed-driven ride, is followed by the rapid-fire playing in “Sutechi,” which sends the audience into a massive pogo. Even a few of the butoh crew can be seen breaking from their usually somber shells to cut loose.
Beyond the release of a live album culled from its 2004 tour of Europe, Fuwa’s thoughts on what direction Shibusashirazu will take next are as formless as the band’s sound.
“I have no idea about the future,” he admits. (Though he will reveal one thing: the band will not be going to the U.S. due to its strict smoking codes – and yes, he is serious.)
“Yesterday is yesterday,” he says. “As for tomorrow, I really don’t know.”
Note: This article originally appeared in March 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.