Uyama Hiroto “freeform jazz” Interview (2016)

This is an interview about Uyama Hiroto‘s third full-length album, freeform jazz. Joining Uyama here is close friend Hashimoto Toru. This interview is particularly recommended reading for fans of Nujabes, who comes up quite a bit during the discussion.

Interview & text: Sawada Daisuke (Japanese text)
English translation: Henkka
Uyama Hiroto on the web: Website, Instagram, Twitter, Bandcamp

Note: You can buy freeform jazz from CDJapan.

Hashimoto Toru & Uyama Hiroto

Nujabes’ right-hand man Uyama Hiroto & Hashimoto Toru talk “freeform”—
Uyama’s unconventional, “emotionally Japanese” new release

A longtime supporting member of the late Nujabes, in his own works the multi-instrumentalist Uyama Hiroto continues to weave worlds of beautiful lyricism. While his sound had already become quite varied on his previous release freedom of the son (2014), there was still a tendency for it to be summarily labeled as merely “jazzy hip hop.”

However, his new album freeform jazz—released two years later—is a work which clearly defies the aforementioned categorization. It is, as implied by the title, a work that is free in form. Alongside the beautiful ensembles characteristic of Uyama, the release is filled with freaky beats, experimental ideas, and dope song progressions, lulling the listener into a false sense of security.

In addition to Uyama himself we also welcomed a close acquaintance of his, editor and music compiler Hashimoto Toru (SUBURBIA), to discuss at length the tremendously adventurous freeform jazz.

— First of all, how did you two initially make contact?

Hashimoto Toru: The first time we met was at a barbecue at Nujabes’ place. That would’ve been around 2008 or so, right?

Uyama Hiroto: Yeah, right around the time I’d released my first album (a son of the sun, 2008).

Hashimoto: Right. Apart from Uyama, people like haruka nakamura and Segawa (DJ Segawa Tatsuya)—who’s also on this new project—were also there. Me and Nujabes, we were just taking it easy on the sofa because we’d had too much to drink, when Uyama and nakamura suddenly started jamming. And it just touched me. Of course, I’d already heard your solo material which I thought was great, and I knew you from before as Nujabes’ right-hand man. But that jam session really made me realize how much of the emotion and the feel in Nujabes’ work came from you. He really had a lot of trust in you.

Uyama: I was taken aback when I heard you’d be coming to that barbecue. I first started making beats when I was around 18, and while the people around me were all DJ’s spinning hip hop, I was mostly doing sampled stuff. Your Free Soul compilations were huge for me in terms of my learning about music. You really were like a teacher to me in that sense.

Hashimoto: Back in ’94 or ’95 when I was organizing this party called the “FREE SOUL UNDERGROUND” at Shibuya’s DJ Bar Inkstick, Nujabes was coming over pretty much every day back then. I suppose me, you, and Nujabes all sought after a similar kind of feeling in music.

Uyama: That’s just due to me checking out your recommendations back then—buying all those records and studying them. (laughs)

Hashimoto: No no, nowadays it’s me who’s always checking out all the great stuff you recommend to me. Especially stuff like Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays, Minas music, and the sort of music that gets called “spiritual jazz”—I think that’s especially where our tastes converge.

Good Mellows For Sunrise Dreaming, an album compiled by you this spring, also contains a song by Uyama.

Hashimoto: Yeah. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call “End Of The Road” my favorite song of the past year. I really wanted to include it, but I felt bad for asking because it hadn’t even been featured on one of his own albums. And yet he gave me his immediate approval, even performing at the release event.

Uyama: As someone who was himself listening to the Free Soul series 20 years ago, I never thought a song of mine would be on a compilation of yours. It is an honor.

— The Good Mellows compilation series leans more towards the Balearic chill-out music vibe with its song choices, so it was interesting hearing Uyama’s music being introduced in that context.

Hashimoto: Mellow chill-out based on the feel of house music is the main concept for Good Mellows, but sometimes it does cross over to jazzy hip hop territory, too. There’s this broken house-esque remix of Uyama’s “Homeward Journey” that I include in my Good Mellows DJ sets, and it always goes over great when I’m playing it as part of my set on the beach. Uyama’s actually based in Yokosuka, while Koizumi Takumi who runs the label with him lives in Zushi, and Nujabes’ house is in Kamakura… With people who live near the ocean like that, their whole approach to music has this “weekend feel” to it that I think is just lovely, and it matches the feel of the Good Mellows series. In that sense, too, I thought it’d make for a great finisher on the compilation, and so I used Uyama’s track as the ending.

Uyama: Just as it is with hip hop and how it’s totally different depending on whether it’s from LA or NY, your environment does affect your sound. That’s something me and Nujabes would talk about, too—how there’s something about my sound that’s reminiscent of the ocean or like the sunset and so on.

Hashimoto: Especially around the Shonan area, the sun sets in the direction of the ocean. That evening sun may be a big part of your sound. Like in haruka nakamura’s music video for “Lamp,” that feeling of when the sun is just about to set… One time as I was walking on the beach right around that time of the day, I happened to run into Uyama and co. when they were taking a break from recording.

Uyama: Ha ha ha. (laughs) I remember that. I do sometimes think about how it’d be easier to live in Tokyo, but ultimately I’ve always stuck around (in Yokosuka) and made music here.

Hashimoto: Living someplace like Shibuya, one can’t help but feel like they’re drowning in all the people; all the things; all the information. So in that sense, the place where you live must be great for you creatively speaking. There’s a bit of distance between us since I live in Tokyo, but I’ll still often get to see Uyama when we’re DJ’ing or playing live together so we’ve always managed to keep in touch that way. Maybe there’s just the right sense of distance between us? We see each other maybe once every six months, and I get to go, “Oh, so this is what this Uyama Hiroto guy has been up to.”

Uyama: Even when you’re with fellow musicians you don’t often talk about the specifics of whatever it is you’re working on at any given time, but with Hashimoto I’m actually able to do just that.

— So would you then say that you had a sense as to the direction of Uyama’s freeform jazz from pretty early on?

Hashimoto: After seeing two recent shows he did with Segawa it felt to me like he was oriented towards deep, essentially spiritual jazz. Including the improvisational aspects of it.

— As Hashimoto just said, there is a sense of something completely new in freeform jazz. I feel like there has been a major change in comparison to your two previous works.

Uyama: Yes. My previous release, freedom of the son, was like a continuation of my first album. On it, I gave shape to this image I’d been trying to depict for a long time prior, and in some ways I was trying to make it an easy listen for my existing listeners. Afterwards, I was actively involved in putting together the material and completing Nujabes’ posthumous release, spiritual state (2011). That’s when I decided to make a break from what I’d been doing up until that point and try something that was more me.

Hashimoto: I got my copy of the new album around a week ago, and I’ve been listening to it every day in the morning after I wake up and at night before I go to bed, and to me it’s music that hits on a deeper level. It’s not often that I’ll come across music I just keep listening to over and over again like this. Before now, I think it’s fair to say you pursued music that could be categorized under so-called “jazzy hip hop” or “mellow beats,” and I’d say you were able to express yourself within that framework, too. But with this release I feel like you’ve created something more foundational—it’s a sound that makes the heart swell, or like, it touches you on an emotional level. And maybe that also really suits my feelings as a listener.

Uyama: I didn’t want to be predictable. That was the most important thing for me. Before now I was very structured in the way I created, always thinking about how I could best materialize these blueprints I had in my head. In some ways you almost have to create that way when it comes to sampling. But this time I employed almost zero sampling, creating most of the beats entirely by hand myself, without any revisions.

Hashimoto: That’s part of what makes it so emotional.

Uyama: A lot of it was recorded in one take. It’s almost like one-stroke calligraphy in music form. I wanted to see what it would sound like if I could directly reflect what I felt inside me.

Hashimoto: But while the way you created it was very different, the overall impression I got from the album wasn’t that different from your past work. It still sounds like “Uyama.” Although maybe that’s due to the clever way the song order is constructed. But although you created these tracks purely from your emotions and compiled them into an album, I could hear all those past experiences also reflected here.

— I feel like that beautiful modal ensemble of the previous releases can also be heard here, especially in the first half. So it’s easy to get into, but then as you keep listening it gradually becomes more and more dope as if you were being submerged in a swamp.

Hashimoto: Right, it’s such a great feeling. We’ve all grown up listening to albums so we tend to think about their overall structure by our nature. I think about that stuff when I’m making my compilations, too.

Uyama: It’s true that I did give quite a lot of thought to the overall flow of the album. Also, this time around I filled all the gaps between songs so there are no pauses. That might be a big part of it, too.

— There’s been quite a change sound-wise, too, wouldn’t you say? While your previous releases had more of a feeling of transparency in their sound, this one has much more of a raw texture to it.

Hashimoto: Maybe one of the defining things about this release.

Uyama: Yes. However, I think if one was to try and specifically make a song that was “raw” and “dope,” you’d start off with a broken lo-fi beat kind of thing… But on this release, one of my main concepts was using a drum sound that sounded close to being live.

— So not the sort of programmed lo-fi dance beat you might hear in raw house music.

Uyama: I made practically no changes to the drum set throughout the album. A part of the reason I didn’t was because I was thinking it might be fun to some day play these songs with a live band. My past songs… For example, something like “One Day,” even if we were to do that one with a live band you just wouldn’t be able to get that great feel like on the original. Because the drums wouldn’t sound like that.

Hashimoto: Right, because the great feel in “One Day” is that of loop music. But this album deviates from that loop music format, and that might be the biggest change. And I have a feeling that that’s actually in line with the ongoing trends in jazz and hip hop today. Like the drums since Chris Dave, or the trends since Kendrick Lamar. There’s that “live-sounding” approach, and that not-perfectly-precise, swaying sense of groove.

Uyama: I feel lots of similarities between the hip hop of our generation and that whole Blue Note scene, or like the jazz trends following Robert Glasper.

Hashimoto: Glasper and co. were hugely influenced by J Dilla, and since you guys and the people in your generation were also so influenced by J Dilla’s sound, it’s no wonder Glasper’s sound would be familiar to you. By the way, I went to see Glasper at his first ever Japan show with Nujabes, who shares the same exact birthday with J Dilla (7 February 1974).

Uyama: Really?! That must’ve been like 10 years ago, right? He made his way over here pretty early on. Also, as a sax player myself, I tend to focus especially on the sax when listening to jazz. People like Jaleel Shaw—even his flow on the instrument is hip hop-like.

Hashimoto: Right. Exactly.

Uyama: Also, in terms of the jazz and hip hop connection, there’s also the kind of stuff that people like Flying Lotus are doing. I tried to be conscious of all that, thinking about the kind of music I could make specifically as a Japanese person, and this is the kind of album that resulted from it. I tried to make something that had a very Japanese kind of feeling, pulse, and vibrancy to it.

Hashimoto: Shing02 is the only rapper on the album, and moreover it doesn’t feature any overseas players. I think that was a good call.

Uyama: That was intentional, yes. I didn’t want to just listen to music from overseas and make something that sounds like that. For instance, I think the reason why people like DJ KRUSH are appreciated overseas is exactly because he expresses a certain Japanese-ness.

Hashimoto: I think the listeners have been waiting for you to take on a new challenge like that, and I think the fact that it’s your third album already makes listeners naturally receptive to it. Besides, there had already been some Japanese-sounding elements in certain phrases of your previous works, too.

Uyama: Maybe so, yeah. As for the beats themselves, I was looking for new patterns while also including some of those more conventional hip hop-like breakbeats. It’s sort of like a conflict between “new challenges” and the “tried-and-true.”

Hashimoto: Aren’t Anderson .Paak‘s albums like that, too? There’s the hip hop songs, the house songs, the soul songs, the broken songs… Well, I guess the difference is in how Anderson .Paak achieves that balance due to employing several different producers, whereas in your case it’s you digesting all that material all by yourself.

Uyama: I was making music as if I was writing it in a diary, like… “I bet no one’s ever made a drum pattern like this.” I incorporated all these ideas that kept popping up from within me, and it just naturally became an album with lots of variation.

Hashimoto: You can really sense that energy in this work. You cherished all the little distortions; discrepancies; the sense of things being overturned. It’s uninhibited and unconventional. I’m thinking that’s what the word “freeform” in the title alludes to.

Uyama: Exactly. With old jazz like Herbie Hancock‘s Sextant (’73) or Miles Davis in his electric period or—for something Japanese—Togashi Masahiko‘s Spiritual Nature (’75), when you listen to stuff like that you’re always just going, “How did they come up with a phrase like this?!” You get that sense of power especially on free jazz records. That’s where I got the inspiration to give it a shot myself.

Hashimoto: There are certain clichés in free jazz, too, but you must’ve pushed aside even those boundaries when making this. It’s alluding to the actual free parts of jazz, so I think it’s a good title.

Uyama: I don’t know if this album could be called “jazz,” but I do think of jazz as a free thing. Also, seietsu made this insane beat collection called Freeform Breaks (2010), and that release fanned the fire for me even more.

Hashimoto: I see, so Freeform Breaks was also significant in that way. I figured there must’ve been some kind of a link.

— Being a music compiler yourself, what other works would you line up next to this album?

Hashimoto: I wonder…? This past week the only thing that’s been inside the CD player next to my bed has been freeform jazz, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to. (laughs)

Uyama: As its creator I feel like it must be something that’s difficult to compare with other works. It makes me very glad to hear that you feel that way, too.

Hashimoto: Really, the only name that pops into my head is “Uyama Hiroto.” But with that said, there’s no need to actually list this alongside the first or second albums either. Although I get that you probably want to list it alongside something even if for the sake of this article. (laughs)

— Maybe there’s parts of it that are similar to other things. On some songs I did hear a kind of a Theo Parrish feel, and a minute ago you also mentioned Robert Glasper…

Hashimoto: I feel like one thing that sets Uyama’s work apart from Glasper and other present-day jazz is the fact that he’s a multi-instrumentalist. In other words, as I just said, he performs most of it himself. Pretty much the only other people who took part in this project were Shing02 and Segawa. I think whether it’s NY or LA or wherever, most music is created upon encounters between different jazz musicians, or when they meet someone outside of the jazz world. But this is more of a personal work. Derrick Hodge made his new album The Second pretty much by himself, too, but again I wouldn’t necessarily line it up next to this album…

Uyama: In that sense, a while ago Pat Metheny made this album called Orchestrion (2010) all on his own, and when I heard that he’d done that, it helped me get over doubts of my own. Like, “Oh, so it doesn’t actually have to be a band!” Well, a big part of it was also that it’s just faster doing everything by yourself. (laughs)

— How would you position this album in relation to the rest of your works?

Uyama: It was an experiment in some sense, but then it’s also very much just me. Previously, when I actually spoke with people who’d heard my first two albums, they’d often tell me how I was “different” from how they’d imagined me to be from the music.

Hashimoto: For the people who actually know you, I bet to them this album does feel more “Uyama.” That manliness and inner strength of yours is really conveyed in this work. Unlike your previous albums, this one isn’t really the kind of thing you would listen to with your girlfriend. (laughs) It’s the kind of work you listen to by yourself, and you just feel invigorated.

Uyama: It’s a spirited album into which I put a lot of effort. I just genuinely wanted to reveal my true self in it, and I’m very glad to say that I do believe I managed to do so.

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