Japanese Pop Singer-Songwriter Turned Jazz Pianist Senri Oe Revisits His Superstar Past on His Joyous New Piano Trio Album
Class of ’88 Reimagines Oe’s ‘80s and ‘90s Hits Alongside His New Originals in a Jazz Trio Setting with Bassist Matt Clohesy and Drummer Ross Pederson
Out June 30 via PND and Sony Music Masterworks
Ever wondered what would happen if Justin Timberlake suddenly fell under the spell of Bud Powell? That’s essentially what happened fifteen years ago, when J-Pop superstar Senri Oe decided to give up his celebrity life in Japan and reconnect with his teenage love of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. At 47 he moved to New York City, enrolled at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and reinvented himself as a jazz pianist.
With seven jazz albums to his name since his 2012 re-debut Boys Mature Slow, it had been safe to say that Oe never looked back – until now. On his latest album, Class of ’88, Oe comes full circle with a piano trio album revisiting several of his classic pop hits, featuring bassist Matt Clohesy (Darcy James Argue, Seamus Blake) and drummer Ross Pederson (Manhattan Transfer, Grace Kelly). Due out June 30, 2023 via PND and Sony Music Masterworks, the album is at once a surprising look back and a brilliant look at how far the pop star-turned-piano virtuoso has come. Pre-Order Here.
“It’s fun to turn the pages of the book called life,” Oe muses poetically. “Appearing on TV and being picked up in a huge limousine were valuable experiences for me. But starting over next to my 20-year-old classmates at the New School was also a valuable and fresh experience. This album is a trip back and forth into the past, the present and also the future.”
While his name may be unfamiliar to American audiences, it’s hard to overstate how famous Senri Oe became in his home country during the ‘80s and ‘90s. From his debut performance on STV Radio’s Sunday Jumbo Special in 1983, Oe released 45 hit singles and nearly 20 albums, more than half of which won the Japanese Gold Disc Award. He has written songs for more than 30 J-Pop artists, including the winner of the 1999 FNS Pop Music Award for Best Song, and he hosted a talk show on Japan’s national broadcasting network, NHK.
2023 marks the 40th anniversary of that debut, but Oe chose a different year to commemorate in the title of Class of ’88. That year saw the release of one of his most successful albums, 1234, which was awarded the Album of the Year prize at the third annual Gold Disc Award (Japan’s equivalent to the Grammys). Oe also saw parallels in the monumental social and political events occurring then and now.
“A lot of things happened at the end of the Cold War that seem very similar to what’s happening in 2023,” he says. “So I thought about my history and wrote some brand new tunes, and I tried combine and mix them up to see if I could make great chemistry happen.”
Class of ’88 features three new tunes alongside Oe’s reimagined classics: the Monk-influenced ballad “Poetic Justice,” the alluring Brazilian fantasy “Lauro De Freitas,” and the wistful “Class Notes,” a beautiful solo piece that serves as the album’s nostalgic theme song. While Oe praises Monk as his favorite composer, the gorgeous lyricism in his playing reflects his supreme influence, Bill Evans. “That’s the most beautiful music in the world,” he says of the iconic pianist. “Tender, strong, powerful, kind and genuine. I was shocked when I was 15 and I heard Bill Evans for the first time.”
Class of ’88 opens with the title track from Oe’s 1990 album Apollo – an apt kick-off for the album as the original lyrics looked back over the decades from the ‘60s through the ‘90s while reflecting on the changes in society since the onset of the space program. “Bamboo Bamboo (Takebayashi wo Nukete)” comes from the same album, the original’s pulsing dance beat replaced by Pederson’s more complex rhythms.
“The challenge I kept in my mind when arranging these songs was not to change the original melody or chord progression,” Oe explains. “Japanese listeners will instantly recognize the original songs in my new jazz world. So the biggest changes I made were in the meters and polyphonic approach.”
“I Wanna Live With You (Kimi To Ikitai)” transforms the original ballad, from 1986’s Avec, into an uptempo Latin number. The title track from the same album closes the album, its original lyrics protesting war in Libya becoming a lament for the decades of conflict and bloodshed that have followed in the region and around the world. On an arrangement inspired in equal parts by George Duke and Hall & Oates, Oe cedes some of his original vocal melodies to Clohesy’s eloquent bass on “Cosmopolitan,” originally recorded for Chibusa (1985).
“My Glory Days (Glory Days)” is the thematically appropriate single from 1234, played as a straight melody by Oe alone at the piano. The humor in “Stella’s Cough,” from the 1987 album Olympic, comes through in the trio’s buoyant, joy-filled new version, while “Fish,” from 1988’s Red Monkey Yellow Fish, becomes a jaunty swinger as infectious as its ‘80s pop counterpart.
Though Senri Oe has left his pop past behind (“No more dancing!” he declares with a laugh), the 62-year-old pianist has never forsaken his songs from that era. With Class of ’88 he finds himself in the unique position of recontextualizing his own music as if they were jazz standards.
“My pop tunes and my jazz tunes were all written by Senri Oe,” he concludes. “I imagined myself throwing a ball over the net from the jazz side to the pop side. It was great to reopen my ‘80s treasure box.”
Senri Oe | Class of ’88
PND and Sony Music Masterworks | Release Date: June 30, 2023
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