We chatted with jazz pianist Senri Oe about his most recent album, Letter to N.Y. This 11-track album was written and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Senri tells us all about making the album, his sound, musical influences, and his creative process. Check it out below!
What can you tell us about your latest record?
SO: Earlier this year, I had to leave my apartment in Brooklyn, where I lived for 10 years for the convenience of my landlord. A gas leak occurred on the first night of the new place, then the heater in the room stopped for 2 weeks. I couldn’t make hot coffee and I was wearing a down jacket all the time to survive the cold. At this time, I connected my PC to a small Casio keyboard to make my own jazz alone. I combined the drum loops in the music application to create a basic rhythm pattern, added nice chords to it, created a melody, and played a baseline. It was a short song, but it was interesting music.
I put all of my energy at once into the songwriting, since I couldn’t go out because of the pandemic. The songs were written one after another and it became an album in no time. New York is a comrade who fought a pandemic, so the title turned into a letter dedicated to the friend, “Letter to N.Y.”
How did you get into music, and how did you specifically get into Jazz?
SO: In kindergarten, a female classmate was good at playing the piano and I was sitting next to her to start playing a duet. I really wanted to learn the piano and persuaded my parents. And then it all started when I got a piano. The teacher immediately realized that I could improvise a song and gave me a title every time. The teacher let me make a song. That’s how I learned the fun of improvisation.
I first heard jazz when I was 15-years-old. I happened to buy Antonio Carlos Jobim’s album (Stone Flower)at a second-hand record store. I was shocked because I had only listened to classical music then. It was totally different and brand new for me. I kept on listening to it enthusiastically. At that time, I didn’t know the tension chords and the mode, so I desperately listened to the record to unravel the mystery of jazz.
When people listen to your music, what are you hoping they get out of it?
SO: Music is a common language. I can speak to somebody’s heart in an instant. Even though I can’t say in words, I will convey it in music. A peaceful heart, an unbiased heart that doesn’t discriminate against others and simple kindness. I want those who listen to my music to bring back this kind of feeling.
How would you describe the sound of your music?
SO: My music gives people peace of mind and it’s unique music that mixes motifs of various elements such as pop, rock, Latin and ancient Japanese music. Then, it is established as jazz. Another feature is that you can hear the lyrics even though the song has no lyrics. In other words, you can see the scenery. The lyrics come to melody… because I had been a singer songwriter for a long time. The music of melody and rhythm is clearly visible. That is the special form of jazz made by a singer-songwriter.
Who would you say are some of your musical influences?
SO: This is a fun question. Chopin, Bach and Mendelssohn, and Billie Joe, the Carpenters. I also love Captain & Tennille. Bill Evans, Thelonios Monk, Nancy Wilson, Sheila Jordan and Jon Hendricks.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
SO: I am still an aspiring musician, but let me tell you what I find most interesting of the various lessons I’ve experienced during the pop era… It’s about listening to others and finding hints from them. Ideas and tips for growth are always hidden in places that are different from your own thoughts and musical tastes. Discovering it is a shortcut to your success. If you listen carefully to criticisms that you find offensive or talk about genres that you are not interested in, and have an eye for observing yourself objectively, you will grow. If you are an artist and have an aspiration, it is most important not to be afraid of change.
What is your favorite song to perform live?
SO: What I play on stage are all of the original songs I composed. I released 7 albums in my jazz career, but my favorite songs are “The Adventure of Uncle Senri” “YOU,” and “Orange Desert.” If I want to do one more last encore song, I also select “Togetherness.” This song was written for people all over the world who have struggled during the pandemic, and was selected as one of the Associated Press’s “40 Songs About The Coronavirus Pandemic.” I wrote it with all my heart.
Can you describe your creative process when you’re writing new music?
SO: When something impresses or moves me and a song is about to be born, I go to the piano. But if I try to force it, it will fail. I need to be relaxed and neutral, not nervous. And I always imagine performing on a big stage and getting big applause. Instead of writing a good song, I try to write it to some specific audience. Moreover, don’t make it complicated that you have to write on the score. Be simple. Simple is the best, and humming music is the best!
What has been the best advice someone has given you about music?
SO: This is what Reggis Walkman, who was the bassist and the faculty of The New School, told me: “Don’t play. too much. Listen to people’s performances.” It also means creating a space instead of stuffing my technique into a bar. And it’s very eloquent.
Listen to Letter to N.Y. here
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