Guardian Song of the Week: Yoshihide Ōtomo, “Amachan Theme”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an unlikely mainstream hit for one of the world’s finest experimental free jazz musicians.
Yoshihide Ōtomo and the Amachan Special Big Band: “Amachan Theme”

Yoshihide Ōtomo is a name which will ring a bell for anyone who has dabbled in experimental Japanese music from the ‘90s. A pioneer in noise and free jazz, Ōtomo’s name can be placed alongside other great titans of experimental and free jazz music, from John Zorn, Glenn Branca, and Derek Bailey.

So imagine my surprise when he appeared on “Kōhaku Uta Gassen”, the annual end of the year music program on Japan’s NHK channel. The program has been a long tradition of Japanese New Years Eve, bringing together the year’s most popular acts. Naturally, the show attracts a wide demographic; not a place you would expect to see an avant-garde noise artist.

The performance was a fantastic finale to an extraordinary year for Ōtomo, who received significant mainstream attention (perhaps the most attention he has had in his entire career) for providing the theme song and score for the extremely popular NHK daytime drama, “Amachan”. The show revolves around a school girl from Tokyo, who moves to the Tohoku region where she becomes a local idol. She returns to Tokyo to try for the big leagues, finally returning to Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011 to help revitalize the area.

Anyone familiar with Ōtomo’s work, particularly his jazz compositions under the Otomo Yoshihide Jazz Quintet/Ensemble/Orchestra moniker, will recognize the “Amachan” theme song and score as being distinctly his music. While the score is definitely more playful and fun than his experimental work, it oozes with Ōtomo’s sensibilities, from the sweeping, breathtaking brass sections, to the dissonant freak-outs accompanied by his brittle and instantly recognizable guitar tone. After a career of more than 30 years, Ōtomo is finally in the spotlight.

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