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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
Ub-X freely tinkers with the engine of jazz
Piano, bass and drums form the engine of jazz. Most jazz bands build on this foundation by adding other instruments, while a select few work from within to upend the conventions of the piano trio and fashion a completely new sound. Ub-X, one of the latter, is a group that sounds like no other.
With disconcerting rhythms, startling dynamic shifts and strange, mesmerizing vocals, Ub-X has recreated the standard jazz piano trio in a remarkably new form. Pianist and vocalist Ichiko Hashimoto, bassist Nobuyoshi Ino and drummer Atsuo Fujimoto all play jazz, but in quickened, suggestive ways.
Each brings their own unique artistry to the trio. Fujimoto's drumming flows into free jazz, then ebbs back to a central rhythm. Ino's bass thunders and pounds, then seems to float notes into the air. Hashimoto's vocals sound like eavesdropped conversations that the band sets to snippets of seemingly familiar melodies. Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole they are not.
With a new CD out this summer, shows around Tokyo and a Japan tour in December, Ub-X has clearly found their own voice. Talking to The Japan Times in a coffee shop along the Inokashira Line, Hashimoto, with punctuating comments from Fujimoto, explained that their different approach did not arise from an aversion to standard jazz.
"It was a natural development from the beginning, not a criticism. Jazz standards are written in English mostly, so without a lot of study, the meaning may not be clear," she explains. "When you sing, a lot of different meanings can be created and sometimes there is a meaning that I just do not know how to convey. But still, I want to get across my feeling."
The trio's two previous CDs, "Miles Blend" and "Miles Away" (released under "The Ichiko Hashimoto Trio") worked toward clarity and completeness. Hashimoto and the band's new, highly expressive approach is based on allusiveness and ambiguity. Hashimoto's vocals remain deeply enmeshed in the total sound, rather than directly out front -- listeners have to almost physically lean forward to grasp the fleeting tones and murmured words.
"I don't think of this as vocals or as singing exactly," Hashimoto says about this curious imprecision. "I'm not really a singer in this trio. Maybe it's a quartet. The voice is not really an instrument, either, but it is kind of close to an instrument."
Whether working with standards, Brazilian songs or her own originals, lyrically Hashimoto's gentle, expressive voice forms its own quasi-linguistic patterns.
"The words have been stripped of meaning, so you can not think about them. It is not even that this word is sad or fun, but if you listen closely even more can come out of the words," she says, struggling a bit to explain. "It's more that it is like a word or a fragment of meaning. The fragments build up, so you can use your imagination. It's much more unconscious, built on impressions and emotions."
If Ub-X relied solely on this beguiling, original language, they would be rare enough, but they also blend together a diversity of rhythms. Each member of the group pulls and pushes freely on the central groove, dislocating the beat and then dropping it back in sync.
"At the beginning, we always have a set, larger tempo. Inside that, we can make fine distinctions of rhythm that are more complex," Hashimoto says. "Though everyone has their own very different rhythm, overall, the tempo is together."
This free-yet-focused approach to rhythm feels scattered all over the place and then right on target.
Though Ub-X fits better on CD covers, the band's full name is "Ubiquitous Groove Project X."
"Ubiquitous, from the Latin, means the energy vibration that shows the connection of all living things. That's a feeling we want in the music," Hashimoto says. "It is a kind of resonance and vibration that comes before societies and before human feeling even; part of the history of living beings." Fujimoto adds, " 'X' means the unknown, a kind of mystery. We want to always include an undefined element."
Ultimately, though, the only mystery of Ub-X is why they are not more widely known. Though Hashimoto has released some 20 recordings and the trio has worked together for eight years, their new CD points to a fresh new direction. In January, Ub-X will record a new set of songs for release next spring. You can be sure they will not be taking a dictionary or metronome into the studio with them this time, either.
Ub-X performs: Dec. 6, 7 p.m. at Osaka's Knave; Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m. at Kyoto's Rag; Dec. 8, 8 p.m. at Nagoya's Lovely; Dec. 9, 7 p.m. at Okayama's Yume Cafe; Dec. 10, 5:30 p.m. at Kumamoto's CIB; Dec. 12, 8 p.m. at Fukuoka's New Combo; and Dec. 13, 6:30 p.m. at Saga's Saga Exchange Center S-Platz Hall. For more information on performances in Tokyo in late January visit homepage2.nifty.com/najanaja/ Michael Pronko can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org