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Japanese saxophonist, Motoharu, brings death jazz to Taiwan

The founder of the influential Soil, ‘Pimp’ sessions celebrates 50th birthday with performance at Vinyl Decision

Motoharu preparing for a wild night of jazz. (Taiwan News photo)

Motoharu preparing for a wild night of jazz. (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Motoharu’s wild saxophone playing is central to what has been characterized as "death jazz," a wild, adrenaline-fueled ride careening between genres such as bebop, gypsy, Latin, funk, and even heavy metal.

On Saturday (July 1), Motoharu performed a one-off show with Jazz Element (爵士元素), at the 1914 Huashan Creative Park’s Red Brick area. His performance didn’t go unnoticed, as a handful of music industry professionals from the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, and Europe, skipped the glitzy Golden Melody Award Ceremony to glimpse a sighting of a rare jazz savant.

"Jazz is dead. I say this often. What I mean is that the jazz that we knew doesn’t exist any more. We need to think and play differently with more interaction between musicians," said Motoharu an hour prior to his performance at Vinyl Decision.

Motoharu often dresses as a Pokemon character for his performances, and for the Taipei show he showed up in a bright pink Mohawk with tiger stripes carved into his beard. His eyes also have a wild energy, often giving sideways glances at fellow musicians on stage.

"Explosive" is the word that best describes his saxophone playing. While he mostly performs alto sax, for his weekend trip to Taipei he chose a soprano sax, which is smaller and more portable, as well as better suited to soloing. Motoharu seamlessly integrated his style with local jazz players: Jazz Element leader Brian Alexander on upright bass, Roger Huang on guitar, and Jimmy Chen on drums.

Motoharu's recent performance at Vinyl Decision with Jazz Element. (Facebook, Mark Thomas)

With the Soil and "Pimp" Sessions he formed in 2001, a high-energy sextuplet often wore wild costumes and challenged jazz convention. For example, one onstage member was simply a hype man, or "agitator", who extorted the band and audience to go faster and faster.

With so many talented musicians onstage, the band quickly redefined the jazz scene in Japan, shaking up a staid network of musicians unwilling or unable to break away from standards.

A classically trained musician from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Motoharu desired a new jazz form with more interaction between the players and the audience. Soil and "Pimp" sessions, behind Motoharu’s alto-sax play, would soon find a larger audience at music festivals, beginning with the Field of Heaven stage at Fuji Rock, said Motoharu.

"We played more like a jam on that stage, even before our first CD came out. And later, we formed a band a year and a half later and played the much bigger White Stage and then the main Green Stage, which is so huge and has such good sound."

Motoharu calls Fuji Rock (to be held July 27–30 this year) the "toughest festival in the world" because of the long distances and elevation gains that festival goers have to travel between stages.

In 2005, his band gained acclaim in the U.K. and was invited to play the world-famous Glastonbury festival, which is the grandfather of modern-day music festivals with over 100 stages each year. However, Motoharu describes the festival layout as almost entirely "flat" and less physically demanding than the Japanese festival.

With more festival performances and underground club appearances, it was only a matter of time before record labels came calling. But first, the band would have to make one important concession, a move that would go on to define them for the next two decades.

"At the time, our name was Soil & Hemp Sessions. But our record label, Victor Entertainment, said the broadcaster, NHK, wouldn’t tie up with us or put us on TV because of the word ‘hemp.’ They did not pressure us, but we instantly thought of a worse name, ‘pimp, which NHK didn’t know yet," said Motoharu.

Motoharu says the band made the concession because many members were from outside the Tokyo area, and coverage by Japan’s leading broadcaster would reach their families and friends at home.

Years later, the public profile the band was taking on would eventually take its toll on Motoharu, and he departed the band in 2016. Just a few weeks ago (June 22), an incident involving drummer Midorikawa Naoto would also force him to leave the band.

Leaving Soil & "Pimp" Sessions has ultimately been freeing for Motoharu, giving him the opportunity to play with more musicians and work on more projects, such as his brief weekend stay in Taipei.

Upon returning to Japan, he proudly announced on social media that his twentieth performance of the year sold out in just 24 hours, and later this month he’s booked at leading performance houses in Japan such as Billboard Tokyo and Billboard Osaka.