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Beatnik brings you Japanese trio Ovall
words Sven Carlsson / images Press
So-called supergroups are often either unnatural or shortlived creations. Recall Raphael Saadiq’s short-lived Lucy Pearl or Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Pharell Williams’ Child Rebel Soldier formation (the album is on the way, I hear…). But when organic in formation and sound, gathering a few accomplished solo artists can prove a wise decision. Ovall, a trio of musicians associated with Tokyo’s Origami Productions, have us at Beatnik scrambling pennies for the next eastbound flight. If we’re lucky, Ovall will come to us first.
Shingo Suzuki, Mabanua and Shingo Sekiguchi have long been making music as solo artists. Yet despite their solo work, band leader Shingo Suzuki tells us that an album by the trio has been underway for about 10 years. On Wednesday 10 March, the project will be finalized, with the group’s first album Don’t Care Who Knows That being released by Origami productions. Ovall’s debut is an organic and soulful album that exudes chemistry and musical harmony between the three members.
Instead of a tug-of-war between egos in a group abundant in individual talent but lacking in chemistry, Ovall have develped an obviously potent musical interaction over the years. Shingo Suzuki describes a ”common sense” between him, Mabanua and Shingo Sekiguchi when it comes to making music.
“Each of us has a different musical background, but we have the same musical sense,” he explains. “We met in Tokyo’s jam scene, so we’ve often played together at clubs and made beats and songs in the studio. There is a good chemistry between us, and our is music continuing to improve at our gigs.”
While each member of Ovall brings something different to the table, the sound is clearly soul-oriented, with touches of funk, hip-hop and jazz that can render it subject to the neo-soul title. Regardless of whether that categorization is desirable, Ovall are making progressive urban music that carries on the work of forebearers like production team Soulquarians, whose late-90’s work left a great impression on the group. Mabanua cites the Soulquarians, whose core members were The Roots, Jay Dee and James Poyser, as a great influence on his work. Shingo Suzuki says he ”love[s] Common’s Like Water for Chocolate,” the now classic album from 2000 that the team shared production credit for.
The funky, hip-hop drifting soul that D’Angelo became known for during the same era also shaped the musical environment in which Ovall was formed.
“[In the 1990’s], Musicians in Tokyo would often play material from [D'Angelo's debut album] ‘Brown Sugar’ in the club. His live album from The Jazz Café made a big impact on the scene. I was very excited about D’angelo’s music, especially his VooDoo album. The sound, groove and voice of that record really appealed to me. But while those and plenty of other musicians are our influences, we have now progressed to the next phase.”
Justifiably eager not to be associated with a musical movement whose crescendo may have passed, any fan of soul-drenched, instrumental hip-hop will sense a gut attraction to the music of Ovall. This is the place for minimal, funky riffs, floating rhodes and horns, either in instrumental form or accompanied by vocalists, whether MC’s, singers or both. And, at least to an outsider, the music seems a natural soundtrack to the buzzing Tokyo streets, as if each song was made for exploring the Japanese capital aided by a pair of headphones to strengthen every new impression.
This, however, may just be the perception from the outside. “We’re working in Tokyo and we live in Tokyo for a long time. So it’s natural that you associate our songs with Tokyo,” Shingo Suzuki says. “But really, it all depends on your interpretation of the music. It is not tied to a particular place.”
Don’t Care Who Knows That is filled with treats, whether the songs stem from melodic soul, hip-hop or are introspective instrumental tunes. Second track Mary (Flying Beats), laced with tight percussion and keys matching the lingering clarionette solo, provides a good introduction to Ovall’s sound and creative process.
Songs are commonly conjured up by Shingo Suzuki and then added to in one way or another by Shingo Sekiguchi and Mabanua. This incremental process goes a long way to explain the integrity of the final product.
“Sometimes I have an idea in my mind, rythm, drum pattern, chord changing, tempo, or sometime I have a theme of the track. Sometimes we jam and come up with the songs spontaneously,” Shingo Suzuki explains. “I allow everyone ‘space’ for their ideas with respect for how they want to develop a song. Often Mabanua and Shingo add dimensions to my original ideas, and the end product is even more magical than the image I created.”
There is also room for more clinically structured songs on the album. On ‘Secret Time, ‘Take U To Somewhere’ and ‘Meaning of Love’, Mabanua provides the high-pitched lead vocals. Minimal and catchy ‘Secret Time’, with its subtle, multi-tracked vocals and smooth horns, reminds us of some of the best music the neo-soul movement has had to offer – which of course is a compliment.
Perhaps the most blatent sign that we are dealing with experienced musicians is that Ovall, aside from making clean cut and catchy singles such as ’Secret Time’, also have a clear soft spot for experimentation. Some of the album sounds like musical stream-of-consciousness more than conventional songs. Dreamy ’Shadows & Lights’ is a five-minute sequence where every beat is unique, drifting into an intense climax with pacy drumming by Mabanua underneath Shingo Suzuki’s vocals.
“I made this song with keyboard in my room. I wanted to express the surrealist idea of shadows & lights through music, and it’s also a conversation with myself. At first, I couldn’t find the words for the song, but finally they came to me,” says Shingo Suzuki.
So whether expressing surrealist ideas through introspective songs or conjuring up jam-based songs, Ovall is giving the world a taste of Tokyo’s dynamic music scene. Already blessing the audience in Japan with inspiring live sessions, it is imperative to more than a few fans outside of the country that Ovall begin to gig internationally. At Beatnik we are proud to play our part in making that happen.