An Interview with Senri Oe
Dennis: Good day Senri, how are you today?
Senri: Good day Dennis, I am good, very good.
Dennis: So glad to hear it! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, I really appreciate it. So, I have to say that right off the bat, your music caught my attention and I am so thankful to have found you and your music. Unlike some Jazz music that I have heard, it seems that it could be too easy to get lost in the intricacies of the composition itself and lose sight of the emotional range that the music is so capable of capturing. You, on the other hand, have seriously mastered both technical and emotional ranges to perfection, how do you do it? Is there a concerted effort when writing your music or does it come naturally for you?
Senri: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I don’t know which tunes you already listened to though, maybe I can say the most powerful thing for me to compose is always melody first. Not theory. Some interesting shape of melodic waves come to my mind suddenly, and gradually occupies and controls my soul. For instance, when I walk down the street, take a shower, feed my dog… anytime, first the melody comes. It starts to repeat in my mind and it is imprinted on my mind. For a while, I don’t need any pianos, or musical instruments. Just humming to remember it completely. One day, one timing, one minute, one second, I finally face the piano and put my fingers on the piano, naturally. So I don’t use theory or jazz knowledge at all for composing. The modes, scales, reharmonization, and chords surely help me a lot though. However, the melody is always first and in a very organic way. Words are second key. My melodies take the specific words always together. Even though my tunes are instrumentals, every melody has its own lyric.
Dennis: Thank you Senri. It is strange, the music seems to capture a ‘New York kind of sound’, (to me) and through your music, I can picture people sitting on a park bench, and various other aspects of people’s lives that all seem to radiate from your beautifully crafted music. Would you say that was an intended effort on your part to capture your city in that way?
Senri: Yes. My residential area is in Brooklyn. There are a bunch of wonderful parks, dog runs, interesting people, cheap restaurants, tiny bars, open cafes and more, more, more. I Love NY, Brooklyn in particular soooooo much and that is why I’ve been here for almost 8 years, it is so lovely. I also think this diversity, energetic power, chaos, jam, anything stimulates me 24 hours a day and makes me scribble my music like drawing.
Dennis: I’ve never been to New York before, but your music and what you describe make it sound like a truly magical place to be and live. Now let me see if I have this straight, in your biography, it states that you started classical piano training at three years old, is that correct?
Dennis: Were your parents musicians themselves? Did they see something in you that made them realize you had an interest in music at that young age?
Senri: No, they were not. My dad worked for Yomiuri New Paper Company and taught himself to play cello, violin and mandolin as his hobby. My mom was a house wife who loved broadway shows. When I was 3, I tried demonstrations to make them buy a real upright piano for me, drawing keys, on the wall and acted out to play some real piano in front of them. At last I won, they payed for my piano.
Dennis: Well yes, thank God, otherwise, we might not be having this conversation with each other now. How often were you getting lessons in your childhood and did you balance lessons and school very well?
Senri: Once a week from a 17 year old teacher who had tried to be an opera singer. After the classical piano lessons, she always said to me “Senri, this is the right time to improvise. Let’s do it! I know how much you like it.” This was the first experience I had to compose music, it was very fun. On the other hand, I didn’t like school that much. So all my memories are with that teacher. Recently I found out that she did become an opera singer in Paris through FB and contacted her.
Dennis: Coming from classically trained piano, how did J-pop influence your direction and how did you work your way to becoming such a successful J-pop aritst? What hurdles did you overcome too?
Senri: I applied to some singer/songwriter contests presented by YAMAHA when I was 12. I started to listen to singer/songwriter, Billy Joel, The Carpenters and Gilbert O’Sullivan as well as J-pop singer/songwriter, Yumi Arai. When I was 15, I got through to the final (YAHAMA Contest) as the original bossa nova tune. Around that time, I got some influences from jazz tunes by Antônio Carlos Jobim, Wynton Kelly, Chris Connor, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. I started to learn jazz theory but it was too hard to get in through at that time for me. In parallel, I got a big chance to debut from major label, Epic Sony Japan when I was 23 as a singer/songwriter. After that debut, I had made all possible efforts to write my J-pop standards for a long time and I finally won 1st place in the Japanese Billboard Chart in 1990 for the album” Apollo”. I think I was a very lucky guy. In addition, I had devoted my entire whole energy and 24 hours a day for my creation for 27 years.
Dennis: Wow… proof that hard work and dedication pays off, always. What did you find most fulfilling about your J-pop days?
Dennis: How did you come from J-pop, to moving to New York and starting in the Jazz field?
Senri: Basically, I’ve always loved jazz, but I couldn’t find any way to get started with it for a long time. When I was 47, I remembered The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and researched it online. There I go! I found the application form for the international students from abroad. My jazz teacher, acoustic bass player, Osamu Kawakami supported me and encouraged me a lot to make a demo which consisted of jazz ballads, blues and 3/4 tunes. I practiced 24 hours and passed the admissions test. I entered The new School Spring Semester in January of 2008 and graduated in 2012 and then launched my own jazz label here in the US.
Dennis: What were some new (musical) revelations that you learned at the New School for Jazz and how have those lessons shaped your sound?
Senri: Totally old school… (laughs)
Senry: …The New School throughly taught me The Old School Method by Charlie Parker.
Dennis: Well, that is good though, the old school is the best school, as taught by the New School. (laughs). Tell me about your albums, you’ve always strived to be adventurous and breaking new ground in the Jazz field, while some Jazz artists are content just doing standards, what keeps you moving forward?
Senri: I am 57, not that young. This is it. I have no choices other than taking it this way. I cannot play faster. I cannot jump higher buck. But I can do the best landing. That is my actual goal.
DK: Will there always be fresh ground for artists to cover in Jazz?
Senri: It depends. A deliberate arrangement always makes a good surprise to the audience. But it should take time to narrow down music deeply. I like a process to build up the castle of music carefully.
Dennis: How would you say your albums differ from one another and what elements of the Jazz genre would you categorize each of them in?
Senri: 1st “Boys Mature Slow” is Old School. 2nd ” Spooky Hotel” is Big Band Style like a soundtrack for movies. 3rd “Collective Scribble” is experimental art modal jazz. 4th “Answer July” is a vocal album. And 5th “Boys & Girls” is a solo album.
DK: Do you have a personal favorite composition, or album that you feel best encompasses your art?
Senri: “Ask me now” Thelonious Monk, “Emily” Jonny Mandel, “Duke Ellington Sound of Love” Charles Mingus, “Dindi” Antonio Carlos Jobim
DK: How much time do you usually put into recording each album, from the compositions to the studio time?
Senri: Usually 1 or 2 days for 1 album, 10 tunes. This coming new album “Boys & Girls” is solo. So it took 2 full days. (11am-5pm)
DK: That is pretty fast there! Being a perfectionist, do you ever feel like a composition is truly ‘complete’?
Senri: No. I wish. Someday I will.
Dennis: How do the fan responses differ (to you) from your J-pop days to fan responses these days?
Senri: These days, fans don’t know who I am, or where I am from and so they love that tune that they’re listening to ‘simply’. They don’t have any bias, and so they don’t care how famous in Japan I am, they just simply love my music.
Dennis: Tell me about Peace Never Die Records, are there other artists on the label or will there be other artists on it?
Senri: At first I tried to support some artists in the US. But the more I explored, the more I knew that I should concentrate on my music first. Recently not that much though.
Dennis: Looks like you’ve played out in D.C., Atlanta and even here in Chicago last year at Piano Forte, have you played out to many other states and cities besides those?
Senri: Seattle, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, LA, Wisconsin, Columbus, Hawaii, Minneapolis …and dates I have that are coming up are:
8/4 Vitello’s Supper Club (world premier show of “Boys & Girls”)
9/2 Detroit Jazz Festival
9/6 Regatta Bar, Boston (Birthday Live)…
And Amsterdam in November 2nd – 4th.
Dennis: Nice! You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music industry and from a rather unique perspective as well, what have your observations been over the past, oh, let’s say, 20 years and how do you feel you fit into this digital music world we’re living in these days?
Senri: When I was 27, there were cassette tapes, and then LPs and CDs came up. Now CDs are almost gone and digital files occupy the whole music world. I basically love vinyl and cassette tapes because I am more accustomed to those, but I also like digital, too. They’re very practical and all musical devices should change with the times. It is true and healthy.
Dennis: I too grew up with cassettes and vinyl and have to say that digital music (for me) has been the best way to enjoy my music. I have music files all crammed into my phone of most every genre of music that I love with Jazz playlists, Electronic music playlists and more and find it enjoyable shuffling all my music listening to one genre for one song and then another genre for the next… I love the quality and flexibility that digital music files bring to the listener most of all. What advice might you offer to young, aspiring artists who are just starting out, looking to further themselves?
Senri: No 24 hours 365 days Music, No 24 hours 365 days Life.
Dennis: What would you attribute to the secret to your success?
Senri: I am not sure actually. But when you feel sad, you are supposed to take a chance to make happy music. The reverse is also true.
Dennis: Apart from music… who would you say you are as a person and what are your interests outside of the musical realm?
Senri: I was originally from Osaka, in the western part of Japan. There is the huge comedy troupe called “YOSHIMOTO SHIN KIGEKI” I love it. Every night before going to bed, I watch it to fall asleep. Bliss time.
Dennis: I think it is healthy to go to watch some sort of comedy program before going to sleep, I truly believe it can help a person to get a better night sleep. Do you spend any time on social media to either do some networking or to stay in touch with family and friends?
Senri: I am active on social media for SNS.
Dennis: How often do you collaborate with other artists? How are the experiences for you and how do you feel the music you produce is enriched by those collaborations?
Senri: In the former album “Answer July”, there were a lot of incredible collaborations with Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, Lauren Kinhan (New York Voices), Theo Bleckmann and Becca Stevens. Always, those acquaintanceships are special and once-in-a-lifetime chances to learn some good things. I love that enrichment by those collaborations. However, I sometimes need time to be alone to probe and investigate my music thoroughly though too.
Dennis: You have a new album entitled ‘Boys & Girls” coming out on August 5th, what can you tell me about this wonderful new album?
Senri: I rearranged my 7 pop tunes in jazz includes “Rain” ( The ending theme of the animation movie ” Garden of words” directed by Makoto Shinkai, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uks5QfvD38g).And 2 more brand new jazz tunes I wrote( Flowers, A Serene Sky). I have been a mediator between my pop tunes and jazz. Moreover, all was composed by myself. This is the most interesting expeioence in my life. For long time at my home studio, I had struggled to create jazz arrangements for my pop tunes. But on the other hand, that era was so necessary, essential and compelling time for me,too. In another word, impayable.
Dennis: Are there any guest musicians on the album?
Senri: No unfortunately. Just myself.
Dennis: What story of your life would you say this new album captures?
Senri: Pop meets Jazz. Jazz meets Pop. Life is short. But we can live twice.
Dennis: What are your greatest hopes for current fans and music lovers who have just learned of you and what would you like them to take away from your music?
Senri: I want all listeners to enjoy simply without no preconceptions.
Dennis: Well, quite honestly, I could go on forever asking you question after question about your great music career, but I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I am just thankful to have had this opportunity to find out more about you and share it with the world. Thank you very much for your time Senri, I sincerely appreciate it and hope the new album release and your career moving forward will continue to be as successful and fruitful as it has been already and more!
Senri: Thank you that I had a great opportunity to express myself and feel honored to part of this wonderful exchange.
Biography: Senri Oe/ Jazz Pianist and Composer
A New York Resident for the past decade, Senri Oe is making a name for himself as an innovative, engaged and highly creative member of the Jazz Community. Though he has proved his skill as a songwriter, pianist, singer and more, he prefers to describe himself simply as a jazz musician who loves to write music as well as perform on piano.
In the four jazz albums Senri has released as a leader since 2012, he’s shown himself to be versatile and adventurous, exploring different facets of jazz with each CD. From a two-horn quintet( Boys Mature Slow, his 2012 stateside debut) to a full big band (2013’s Spooky Hotel) to a straight-ahead trio ( Collective Scribble, 2015) to a vocal showcase( 2016’s Answer July, featuring the likes of Sheila Jordan, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens, and Lauren Kinhan of New York Voices, Senri makes it clear he’s comfortable in a variety of configurations.
The albums have been well-received in both the U.S. and Senri’s native Japan, earning glowing reviews in jazz magazines and blogs( refer to final page10). As for what fresh territory he plans to explore on future recordings, listeners will have to wait tell next year 2018 to find out.
A perfectionist, Senri has been known to compose dozens of songs for his recordings before making the final selections. While working on Collective Scribble, for example, he wrote 54 tunes, of which only a dozen made a final cut. There is a lyrical quality to his compositions, in which he aims to capture the spontaneous emotions of a specific moment in time, and share each tiny slice of life in the universal language of music. Listeners have found that hearing Senri’s just once is not enough: his style gets under your skin, once you’ve heard a Senri Oe composition, you can’t wait to hear more.
Like many artists, Senri had another career before deciding to pursue his lifelong love of jazz at age 47. But his back story is unusual; rather that quitting a day gig in an office, retail, or restaurant setting, Senri traded in an enormously successful pop music career in Japan to follow his artistic muse. Just how successful was he? For starters, Senri received a Japanese Grammy Award, topped The Billboard Charts, and performed in stadium-size venues. Since moving to the U.S., he’s successfully reinvented himself as a jazz artist rather than a J-pop sing/songwriter, and traded the stadiums for more intimate venues such as Manhattan’s popular Tomi Jazz , and he’s happier for it.
Senri’s fertile imagination, selfmotivation, and tireless energy add up to a busy and productive creative life. Despite his accomplishments, Senri remains humble and in an interview admitted that in his mid-50s he’s still trying to figure out what ” Unique Offering” he has to contribute to the art form that is jazz. Currently, Senri is collaborating on a variety of projects with well-known vocalists. He thrives on collaboration and building relationships, as evidenced by his work with the stellar musicians and singers on his albums. Also, he has worked as a producer in New York, aiming to share his in-depth music business experience with others. Senri’s sense of community extends beyond the Big Apple to Japan. 2017’s summer, he has just successfully finished the collaboration of Grammy winner, Ms. Janis Siegel from Manhattan Transfer and far-famed Japanese Enka singer Ms. Mika Shinno. He maintains ongoing ties to the music and arts scene there, writing as a contracted composer for Sony Music Publishing Japan, and working with Japanese singers who would like to follow the path he’s pioneered in Manhattan, including successful and highly acclaimed artists such as Sayuri Ishikawa, Tamio Okuda, Ken Hirai and Misato Watanabe. These days, Senri Oe is living his lifelong dream, dedicating himself to jazz composition, constantly striving to progress, and impressing listeners and collaborators with his passion, enthusiasm and love of the music. It will be very interesting to hear where his versatility, imagination and dedication take him next.
1960 Born in Osaka
1963 Started Classical Piano Training
1972 Started composing
1983 Debut from Epic Sony Japan as a singer song writer
1989 The Gold Disc Award Japan “Best Male Singer Song Writer“
1989 Japan Grammy Award “ Best Composer”
1990 9th album“ Apollo” no.1 on Japanese Billboard Chart
2008 Quit pop career, Move to NYC 2008 Enter “The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music”
2012 Graduate from “The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music”
2012 Launch PND RECORDS (Peace Never Die RECORDS) peaceneverdie.com 2012 1st album “Boys Mature Slow”
2012 “Boys Mature Slow” Release Live @Zinc Bar 2012 NISSAN Presents Jazz Japan Award
2012 Album of the Year: New Star 2012 Tokyo Jazz (Sub Stage) 2013 2nd album “ Spooky Hotel”
2013 Tokyo Jazz (Main Stage) 2015 3rd album “ Collective Scribble”
2015 “Collective Scribble” Release Live @Jazz Gallery
2015 Kennedy Center Millennium Stage http://www.kennedy-center.org/Artist/A214393
2016 4th album “ Answer July” with Sheila Jordan, Becca Stevens, Lauren Kinhan( New York Voices), Theo Bleckmann , Jon Hendricks( Lyrics)
2016 “Answer July” Release Live @Jazz Gallery 2017 “Answer July” @Blues Alley ( Washington D.C.)
2017 “Answer July” @Piano Forte ( Chicago )
2017 Atlanta Jazz Festival ( International Jazz Day, April 30th)