Jazztronik: Piano Samurai

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Last year a track from Japan found a home abroad in the playlists of DJs as disparate as Derrick May and Kenny Dope–Jazztronik’s “Samurai,” released on Neil Aline’s Chez imprint. A stunning marriage of jazz grand piano and rough broken beats, “Samurai” won the expected fans–like Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide audience–but also unusual acclaim from producers like Jazzy Jeff, who included it in his house mix album for Defected. Not too shabby for a track with decidedly humble origins.

“The piano phrase in the track comes from a warm-up practice melody I use for my fingers,” explains 28-year-old Ryota Nozaki via email from his home in central Tokyo. “All I did was to keep that melody and add some drum programming.” A typically unassuming response from Nozaki, but one that belies the banging energy packed by his particular mix of jazz and electronics. While so many producers are content to mine jazz records for key hooks that drive their songs, Nozaki’s productions show a more natural integration, a fluency borne of years of both classical and modern training.

Nozaki was first motivated to make his own music by fellow countrymen Yellow Magic Orchestra and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but he found inspiration for his rolling key style from players like George Duke. With his Jazztronik guise first appearing on essential Japanese label Flower, Nozaki has gone on to release a half dozen albums and remix the likes of Modaji and Fertile Ground.

Nozaki’s new album, also titled Samurai (Pantone), carries through on the promise of the single with songs like “Arabesque,” which pairs crunchy beats with staccato strings and kaleidoscopic turns at the keys, and “Nana,” a driving bossa jam. Though a few of Samurai’s tracks, like the techno homage to Detroit “Phoenix,” are credited only to Nozaki, the entire album features half a dozen instrumentalists ranging from multiple violinists to a cellist and flutist. And these aren’t just studio players, they’ve performed on stage with Jazztronik. “We’ve done many gigs in Japan,” Nozaki elaborates. “The response of the audience has been really positive which is very inspiring for me as a musician and producer.”

So what does this busy producer and performer really get excited about? “Would you believe me if I told you it was record shopping? I have some great second-hand record stores close to my place in Tokyo and I love digging for records and discovering new sounds and styles.”