I learned early in my radio career, there aren't enough hours in the day to hear all the new music. So, listening to fellow listeners can be tremendously helpful. It was an email from a New Cool fan that introduced me to Toconoma, and I'm delighted to share them with you.
Your fellow listener, Coleman, had learned about the band while in the Tower Records store in Tokyo. Right there, this record store lover was intrigued. Also catching my eye was an introductory sentence about Toconoma that ended with, "...I think it's jazz?"
Coleman shared links to listen to the Japanese quartet's 2017 album, Newtown, and their just released Vistas. What I heard had me also wondering what genre this band claimed. Well, like many of my favorite modern groups, musical exploration across genres gives them a sound all their own.
Toconoma's immediate stylistic touchstone for me is the Michigan pop-funk-jazz outfit Vulfpeck. The quartet's keyboards, guitar, bass and drums lineup lends itself to similar light and tight grooves.
Another similarity is the group's preference for following arrangements over the usual emphasis on improvisation. But Toconoma reaches further into the possibilities of their instruments, all with rhythm at the center.
The band's embrace of electronic dance club music also reminds me, in slower moments epecially, of the modern piano trio GoGo Penguin.
Toconoma was formed in Tokyo a dozen years ago, with Kotaro Ishibashi on guitar, Ryutaro Nishiwaka playing various keyboards, Ray Yako on bass, and Ikuya Shimizu drumming. The recently university-graduated friends wanted to play popular music, in combinations matching jazz with modern dance beats.
Their motto (translated): "Put the melody in the groove. Until faraway, even without voice."
My first impression came from the Newtown album, the band's popular song "N°9." A straight up disco groove opens the song, then taking the spotlight is some dirty Hammond organ. It's a fun, summery hook, and the quartet dives in head first. A sweet rhythm breakdown eventually builds with the organ, but the improvisation is minimal until a synthesizer solo that fades out to the song's end.
As I continue to explore the band's music, the "pop" feel is much more prevalent. It's still really cool, but more akin to dance music than jazz improvisation.
Toconoma's new release, Vistas, confirms the band's funky pop direction. But it's not at all a one-note affair. The disco banger "Delorean" features adventurous use of various keyboards to great effect.
A favorite moment of mine is the slow jam of "Mirage." The slower pace is a smart change-up, and Nishiwaka offers serious chops on acoustic piano and some wild electronics. Ishibashi's two guitar solos here are among his best on Vistas.
The smooth-jazz-on-the-beach vibe of "Drifter" includes a fantastic funky drum section from Shimizu. "Highwind" pulses with an up-tempo club beat that takes an interesting tempo shift into psychedelic funk. The tropical bounce of "Flying Lime" is impossible to sit through without moving, and provides us with a fantastic rhodes solo from Nishiwaka.
Another gem is album closer "Sofar." Another down-tempo tune featuring acoustic piano, Toconoma mesh chill out electronic music with one of their strongest melodies. It's a beautiful, reflective theme that hints at a drifting vocal that never arrives, but isn't missed.
Huge thanks to New Cool listener Coleman for the tip on Toconoma. Let this be an example to you. Have you heard some cool music that had you thinking about The New Cool? Maybe you're not sure if it's really jazz, or you think I must have already heard it. Sharing music is obviously one of my favorite things to do, so please feel free to share with me and your fellow KNKX listeners.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.