Jumping Japanese Jazz

[l1]Y[/l1]up; jazz again today. I promise to continue my efforts to diversify, but the music does what it wants. I’m a helpless victim, just like you.

Do you like cartoon music? While most Americans would recognize the theme song from The Flintstones not many would buy the album. My oldest son Tristan might, but we’ll get to that later.

Japanese animation, or anime, is substantially different from American cartoons. One of the many differences is the music, which is given greater prominence, much like the soundtrack of a good movie. In American cartoons, it’s more like the laugh track than the soundtrack.


Cowboy Bebop, in spite of the unusual name, is well worth watching. But what originally got my interest was when Tristan pestered me into listening to the opening theme, “Tank!” Written by anime’s answer to John Williams, Yoko Kanno, it is a remarkable three-and-a-half minute ride. Kanno writes for many animes, and alters her style to match the mood of the story and characters. Jazz was a natural choice for “Cowboy Bebop” not only because of the name, but because the characters always seem to be coloring outside the lines; maintaining the appearance of normalcy just long enough to throw you a curve when they shoot off in an unexpected direction. The soundtrack to “Bebop” is performed by Kanno’s group “Seatbelts” with Kanno on keyboards.

A blast of horns, and we’re off. As suddenly as they assault, the horns disappear, leaving just an acoustic bass and guitar, now joined by bongos, then a deep male voice speaking the only ‘vocals’ of the tune, “I think it’s time we blow this scene; get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two, one; let’s jam . . .” And they do. First, it’s a pretty normal repeating horn riff; little blasts of punctuation, wandering briefly into what sounds like 60s television theme songs. At exactly the midpoint, though, one saxophone steps out front and takes command.


From here on the ride is frenetic. While the lead sax staggers and slashes through multiple differently phrased leads, even the backing horn section picks up the mood and goes into ‘bouncy syncopation’ mode. After a minute and a half of this relentless assault, the horns all climb to a soaring conclusion – but that lone sax has the last word, firing off a gattling-gun close which is joined by the whole ensemble as it plummets off the peak to what sounds like a painful death on the slopes below.

The Cowboy Bebop soundtrack covers at least five albums, “Cowboy Bebop 1“, “Cowboy Bebop 2“, “Cowboy Bebop 3 (Blue)“, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Future Blues)” and (perhaps to offset the appearance of tunes named after Vitamins A, B, and C on volume 2) “Vitaminless.” You’ll hear a wide range of jazz and jazz oriented tunes, and bits of folk and rock, instrumentals and vocal (in various languages.) It’s not all as ferocious as “Tank!” but it is all worth a listen.

Ben Dyer writes:

Yoko Kanno just blows me away with her music. I’ve seen several other animes that she’s involved in (Macross Plus, Escaflowne), and the music is always 100% dead-on appropriate. I just love Cowboy Bebop the most because she basically had license to do anything and everything for the show (so almost every genre of music I can think of is represented at least once in the CDs: jazz, blues, country, rock, metal, opera).

What’s even crazier is that almost every song has worked its way into the series at some point (giving a completely different – but still appropriate – feel to every episode, some are funny and silly, some are dark and forboding, others are action-oriented, others are sad and depressing).

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