Still from BigYuki 2060 Chiron video

The Musical Atmosphere in BigYuki’s ‘Reaching for Chiron’

The jazz/hip-hop/electronica of keyboardist BigYuki—featured on the last Tribe Called Quest album—is a true hybrid that, surprisingly, contains more Louis Armstrong that you might think.
Reaching for Chiron
Likely Records
02 Feb 2018

At any moment in history of an art form, there’s usually a debate about what makes the music authentic or artistic—what is “pure” and what is merely popular, what is daring and what is merely commercial. The assumption that there’s a battle between what sells and what’s good in black American music, for example, is itself problematic. Ellington moved hearts, feet, and tickets for years in the same that way that Stevie Wonder is respected both as an artist and a star.

But it’s equally true that there is such a thing as selling out, cashing in artistic ambition for a cynical shot at commercial success. When jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard made Windjammer and Bundle of Joy in the mid-’70s for Columbia records, he was not on a quest for a new artistic direction. With background singers, strings, limp funk grooves, and mostly simple pop conventions for material, Hubbard was trying to move units. Was it merely a coincidence that Columbia had just lost its other top-selling trumpet jazz trumpet star, Miles Davis, to semi-retirement the prior year? Hubbard stepped in to fill the void, it seemed, but he had neither Davis’s success nor his ability to bring daring artistry to a pop experiment.

When “smooth jazz” slowly faded away—along with the bulk of more traditional jazz record sales as well—in the new millennium, it seemed as though the “selling out” debate in jazz was evaporating . Sure, there was still jazz that was working with softer textures (Norah Jones, Diana Krall) and there was a healthy area of crossover between jazz and neo-soul or hip-hop. But most of the “crossover” music in this vein seemed natural, sincere, and unforced. Artists like Robert Glasper faced some criticism from traditionalists, certainly, but the boundaries were more blurred. Even the most serious “jazz” artists under 50 or so were experimenting with dance grooves and electronics in the same way that they were experimenting with classical elements, free improvisation, and various international influences.

A new recording from Masayuki Hirono (known as “Yuki” or “BigYuki”) is intriguing because it clearly sits on the pop side of the dividing line and makes almost no attempt to come off as “jazz”. But at the same time, it’s as clearly influenced by the history of jazz, and certainly by the music of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and other masters as anything that goes head-solos-head. Just because you can’t make it without knowing “jazz” doesn’t make it “jazz”, but Reaching for Chiron is an interesting lesson in how these definitions continue to break down in ways that are creative and productive for the music in 2018.

BigYuki: From Classical Music to Jazz to Groove

Hirono is not the standard product of 21st century “jazz school”, although he did go to the Berklee College of Music—the classic jazz bro training ground of years past. He grew up in Japan, where his musical preparation was almost exclusively Western classical.

“How I developed my sound is weird and unique. I wasn’t a B-boy when I got to Berklee. Even jazz was new to me. I had classical technique. But I didn’t really have the will to be a classical musician.”

Why go to Berklee if you aren’t particularly interested in jazz or American pop styles? Hirono explains that, mainly, he was seeking new horizons. “I wanted to leave Japan and gain a new view, see myself from a new perspective. My parents had both lived in the US and wanted me to go. I used my classical technique to get me out. Berklee was known in Japan, and I got a scholarship.”

At Berklee, Hirono was the ultimate rookie, hearing pop music for the first time. In the beginning, he immersed himself in jazz piano, but he couldn’t swing. “I loved Oscar Peterson, Kenny Barron, Phineas Newborne, Jr. I was this annoying kid who always wanted to play with people, ‘Let’s jam, play with me!’ I’d play the bass part for them so they could jam. That’s how I got playing bass lines. Then I got into organ jazz, playing walking bass lines with my left hand. I was intimidated about asking bass players to play, but I got to playing with drummers.”

Obsessing over the organ led Hirono to gospel music. “I started from the ’50s or the ’60s and had to work my way forward. Obsessing over bass lines led Hirono, soon enough, to classic funk music, for example Maceo Parker’s Life on Planet Groove .(1992). This brought him in short order to hip-hop. “I heard a sample of a groove that I loved from Maceo.” It sounds as if BigYuki got an accidental education in black American music over the course of just a few years.

Transforming Soundscapes

The music on the BigYuki debut doesn’t much sound like any of that music: jazz piano or organ jazz or James Brown-inspired/Maceo Parker music. But you can hear that trail of all this music lurking behind BigYuki’s conception.

Much of the album consists of soundscapes that are infectiously interesting, ones that shift over time almost the way a jazz improvisation does, with motifs recurring and mutating. “Burnt N Turnt” begins as pure sound texture, but it brings in a toggling five-note lick that swings and hops, linking everything else together. While are no improvisations or “solos” in the tradition of jazz, blues, and rock, BigYuki has composed the performance so that synthesizers jump into with interludes that sound like big band saxophone sections or like the keyboard lines from the classic ’70s Herbie Hancock fusion records. Sample voices shout, synth percussion marches and grooves, sirens wail.

BigYuki was starting to get into this kind of music as early as Berklee. “I got into synthesizers. Playing with a band, I would hear what’s happening and then come up with ideas that could add to the music as an extra layer. But my goal was to come up something that was so hooky that people couldn’t hear the music without it.”

Ultimately, this meant that BigYuki became a partner to artists of all kinds. Indeed, two years ago, he worked with A Tribe Called Quest on their last recording, We got it from Here … Thank you 4 Your Service. He’s credited as a composer, for example, on “Melatonin”, laying in spacey synth playing beneath Q Tip’s rapping and vocals from Abbey Smith. How did he get that gig? “When I got to New York from Boston, my first big gigs were playing with Bilal. I think I excelled at quickly coming up with ideas and developing the right sound for a situation. And this skill worked really well in hip-hop. Then I was playing with Talib Kweli. It got noticed.”

On his debut, BigYuki works with Chris Turner on “Eclipse”, a modern soul tune has a traditional verse/chorus even though its otherwise a hip-hop tune in textures and approach. Bilal is featured on vocals for “Soft Places”, and rapper Javier Starks is front and center on “Simple Like You”. Across all these pieces, BigYuki constructs a soundscape and moves it around with creativity. “Simple Like You”, for example, shifts between a staccato dance groove to a section orchestrated with string sounds that floats in time.

Music Along the Edges of Jazz

Some of the music on Reaching for Chiron is close to more conventional definitions of “jazz”. “Missing Ones” is built on a combination of lush Fender Rhodes electric piano chords that sound like could be from a Robert Glasper (or Gretchen Parlato) recording and a dry-snare hip-hop pattern, with the subtle syncopation of the two creating undeniable swing. The ending, which drifts into seemingly improvised, spacey organ music, underlines the jazzy quality. This tune was born from two days off from a summer tour, BigYuki explains, when he went to his producer’s place. “He had the keyboards set up: Rhodes, Prophet, he was programming the drums. Taylor had a drum loop and played it, and I came up with this pattern on the Rhodes, and that became something. It happened spontaneously.”

The very next tune on Reaching for Chiron is all acoustic. “In a Spiral” is simply Hirono’s piano and singer Abbey Smith (from the Tribe recording). The leader starts with a beautiful, fully chorded figure on the piano, over which Smith lays in a vocal that leads logically to a set of bridge harmonies. Smith is “bad, super-bad”, BigYuki says flatly. “She is working with big artists now. I wrote this one with the idea in mind to do something with just the piano. I thought about a solo piece, and I came up with these changes. I was working with Abby on the Tribe record, and I loved her voice. We vibed on ideas in the studio. I had a melody idea, then she went with it.”

As you listen to “In a Spiral”, you can appreciate the connection between BigYuki’s “jazz” voyage and education and the music he’s making now. Unlike some other moments when jazz and pop superficially connected, the similarity is not in long solos, in virtuosic improvisation. Instead, the music shares harmonic and rhythmic DNA and an interest in motivic, collective improvisation. In other words, it has more in common with New Orleans jazz—the joyous group groove of trumpets/clarinets/trombones/banjos than with most other music.

This makes sense. When asked what really moves him in music, BigYuki talks about group improvisation, based on a groove, and about syncopation.

“What I love the most? The groove that is rooted deep in soul, gospel, funk, and then hip-hop. What gets me next is the combination of elements you don’t expect. That’s what really opens me up.

“There are a few experiences that really shook me and turned me upside down,” he says more specifically. “In college at Berklee I would check out musicians at Wally’s in Boston. Those guys were playing standard songs, their repertoire. But then they would bring in a groove from Top 40 or other popular music that they liked. You know what it’s like when they’re playing and borrowing a groove from popular songs?”

But then BigYuki gets to the crux of it: “They were playing improvisational music, a group improvisation that was morphing into something else all the time, and playing it over a beat that gets you and moves you. You could say it was party music, but if you want to take in a more artsy way, you get to have that too.”

Revive Music and a Philosophy of Connection

The connection between that Boston/Berklee experience and this next-level music in New York is based in community for BigYuki. Specially, the Revive Music group, a loose collective founded by Meghan Stabile in 2006 when she was still at Berklee. Revive provides a platform—and a philosophy—that makes it natural that jazz musicians not only play with but also are hip-hop musicians. Revive has put out records, hosted concerts, collaborated with Blue Note Records and, get this, even been consulted by Jazz at Lincoln Center in trying to expand audiences for their work.

“When I first came to New York,” BigYuki explains, “there was a strong bop scene, post-bop scene, Latin jazz scene. There was a straight R&B scene. But I could find the place where the genres were crossing over, morphing. It was a struggle for me, to find a place where I could relate to the scene. I tried jam sessions, but I don’t consider myself a strong improvisor in a traditional sense.

“Then Revive emerges. The people who started Revive are the people I went to school with. These are the people who feel the same way I do. They love elements of jazz, hip-hop, groove, art. It started small, but there was a fundamental mind-set: that we were creating a scene that never existed. It’s been ten years and the scene is bigger than ever.

Is it “jazz”? Is it some other label or category unto itself? Does BigYuki care at all?

“That music I related to in Boston and the music we are making now in New York, it can be a party or it can go really deep. You can feel that emotion. There is a diversity in the music, different elements co-existing. The person who decides if it’s popular or if it’s art—the audience decides. The way I want my music to be taken is as something moves people. Not on the heady side. I want it to move people physically but also emotionally. I want people to feel it.”

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