We recently had the pleasure to sit down and have a lengthy chat with none other than Rasmus Faber, Swedish musician and the mastermind behind the fantastic Platina Jazz series of albums. In the interview, we touched on everything from Platina to deep personal philosophies on music. In this segment, we discuss some of the behind-the-scenes production aspects of Platina Jazz, including the process behind how songs are chosen, the methodology behind how tunes are arranged, and more.
Aftershok: Congrats again on the fourth mighty installment of Platina Jazz. What an accomplishment to make it this far!
Faber: Thank you very much! I’m excited about it! Yeah, I know, huh? We’ve done so many songs now, like 75 or something. It’s a labor of love, made up of a group of friends playing jazz music, especially during the recording process, when the songs we play just get a life of their own. There’s a very good chemistry in the band. And of course the feedback from the audience and the general love that the audience has for the original songs makes for a very good vibe as well!
According to some estimates, Japan has the largest number of jazz fans in the world, of any nation, per capita. Perhaps that contributed to Platina’s success?
Yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was true. Just walk into almost any bar, cafe or restaurant, and there’s always good jazz playing on the speakers! It always delights (and surprises) the musicians I bring over.
It feels like Japan has been uncommonly accepting to foreign artists as far as jazz is concerned.
I could guess, but I’d be speculating heavily to be honest. I actually don’t know much about the Japanese jazz scene in particular. I know a bit about the music scene and industry in more general terms, but the jazz scene in Japan seems to be driven by a core group of passionate fans, so unless you’re really into it, it can be a bit difficult to see all that is going on.
I know quite a few people who went there with jazz groups, but the selection of bands always seem a bit random to me, so there are probably things going on behind the scenes. I guess it’s kind of the same in Sweden though, now that I think about it.
Speaking of otaku and niche subcultures, what’s your take on how such diversity has affected Platina?
It’s interesting to see glimpses of the otaku culture here and there; especially in seeing how the anime scene both in Japan and overseas has such strong commitment! I’m watching it more as a fairly educated guest really. And it’s quite interesting that the Platina Jazz project has such diversity in that regard. From the song selection being made by two very knowledgeable anime otaku, i.e the two co-founders of the project Yuzuru Sato and Hirofumi Iwanaga, to the jazz musicians playing the songs, having only a very rudimentary knowledge about what they’re actually playing! I show them some of the original songs and they’re like “Hahaha, no, but seriously, show me the real original.”
How do the musicians that you work with on Platina feel about the material they are playing? Do they know where their material comes from and appreciate it as such? Perhaps not?
Some are more close to it. I mean, they’re all fans of Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno after playing some of their tunes, for example. But to get them to appreciate some of the other, more “extreme” original versions is a bit of a stretch. But I think it’s not at all necessary, I’d even go so far as to say it’s almost necessary that they don’t. To get a group of jazz musicians together who are both very skilled jazz musicians AND very much appreciate these types of songs would be quite a challenge.
Only a few people in the band are able to listen to Aquarion and really hear “through” the anime, and into the geniality of the music. And again, I’d be almost worried if everyone could! Some of the most profound jazz are built on fairly cheesy evergreen songs, and then re-interpreted into even more avant-garde stuff, so I guess that’s kind of the same process. That’s why we chose to call it Anime Standards, because the process is quite similar.
I suppose a lot of this speaks to how “different” Japanese music is compared to what Westerners might be used to. That reaction you mentioned of disbelief of what the original was like is very amusing.
Another funny occasion is when we have the initial arranger meeting. Myself and the four arrangers usually meet at my place, and listen through 70-80 songs, the initial selection that are sent through by Hirofumi Iwanaga and Yuzuru Sato. That is one rocky ride! The purpose of that meeting is to choose as many songs as possible that would be possible to make into jazz versions. That selection of songs (usually 30-40) then goes back to Japan, and they choose the 17-18 final songs based on other things, such as when it was released, popularity, style of anime, etc. But listening through 80 anime songs in 4 hours is… interesting!
Oh, I bet. A lot of anime music is not for the faint of heart. The sheer difference in what is considered acceptable standards for certain vocal qualities and emotional inflections is sometimes downright bizarre, which is part of the reason I have so much respect for Platina. You’ve been able to peel away at those layers of “foreignness” to pick at the song underneath and turn the core of it into some beautiful jazz music.
Thank you, yes, it does feel like that’s what we’re doing.
It’s a fascinating deconstruction, sometimes. From this Volume 4, just like what Nils Janson did with “Moonlight Serenade,” an incredible ability to take the essence of a song and shift the paradigm completely. Of course, I single out that number, but all of them are sterling examples.
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed that one! That tune did spring to life in no small part thanks to the vocalist Douglas Unger, of course.
I’ve chosen the musicians for Platina in part for their versatility, but that only goes so far. You can’t say to someone to pretend that they’re someone else, so you’re faced with either working with musician’s particular boundaries, or change the band, which is not desirable for a number of reasons. That, as well as the slight inclination I have towards making, sound-wise, coherent records (i.e. I like records that are not too diverse, and that have a pretty distinct sound), is what kind of led to that slight sense of repetition, which you picked up on in Vol. 3. That was part of what really challenged us to think hard about how we could evolve the sound, while still remain “us,” so to speak. And our Sailor Moon rendition is one example of that.
Let us say how happy we are that you took my ramblings in my reviews at least a little bit seriously! And that is a seriously interesting glimpse at how the process unfolds for Platina Jazz. But you bring up something I’ve been wondering about; I’m curious as to how much of the sound of Platina Jazz you are actually responsible for? I ask this because Platina has had a fairly consistent sound signature across 4 discs and as many years. As producer, you likely have a strong position in determining the way the music unfolds; how much of it is deference to the arrangers’ vision and how much of it is your own? Do you often find your approach to adaptation shifting as new viewpoints are brought into the picture?
Good question. It depends a little bit on how you define the term “sound.” I’m doing all the editing and mixing. I’ve also partly mastered them, and on Vol. 4 I was responsible for the whole master. So as soon as I get the files from the studio, it’s all me after that.
Before that, however, it’s definitely a joint effort. I am generally responsible for the outcome of the project, so that means I’m always thinking about the balance of the record, and also making sure that all the arrangements hold up etc. But a lot of the choice of styles comes out of that first arranger meeting. And sometimes I or one of the arrangers cracks the code of the concept “this one should be a bossa,” but then actually it’s one of the arrangers who didn’t think about that particular track who gets to make the arrangement. So it’s a pretty fluid concept like that.
I also feel that we have learned a lot. Vol. 1 was very much me and Martin Persson just starting from scratch trying to figure things out. Then Carl Bagge, Karl Frid, and Nils Janson came along and each brought their individual styles. We all went to school together, and we know each other quite well, so it’s easy to talk. It doesn’t take long until they know what I’m after, and I know their musical personalities, so I know if I want a “crazy” arrangement (“Sobakasu,” “Go Go Maniac”) I give it to Karl Frid, and if I want something more stable and traditional (Nyaruko theme, “Galaxy Express”) I give it to Carl Bagge. The weird ones that are left over we give to Nils, hahaha (“Kigurumi Wakusei” and Sailor Moon). But if one of them says “I know how to make this into something good, I’ll take this one”, I pretty much trust them with that, and I’m looking forward to be surprised at the first rehearsal day!
Wow, that is utterly fascinating. I have several questions about this, actually. First it’s interesting that the Nyaruko theme, of all things, was passed to the “stable and traditional” guy. Was there a specific intention on your part to maximize the disparity between source material and adaptation that that song was handed to Bagge?
Not really. Actually we very rarely think about the style of the original when choosing style of arrangements, except when it’s anywhere near a jazz style. We sort of boil the music down in our heads and think about the general melodic structure, and from there explore the possibilities.
In the case of Nyaruko, that is a rare song in another sense, in that it has a blues/pentatonic minor tonality, which is VERY rare, so we always grab those as soon as we can (Pre-parade is another example). In that sense, the Nyaruko theme fit its concept perfectly, one of the songs on the album that instantly fell into place. Boiled down, it was a melody that was very straightforward to make into jazz. Other songs have presented us with much more challenges
You’re right, that tune does have that earthy blues tonality.
So it’s just perfect. Just checking the original now. Had forgotten what it sounded like. But yeah, this is the kind of track that would make us smile in the meeting, not because we think it sounds fantastic (necessarily), but because we know WE will make it into something good. Some songs give exactly the opposite reaction, while being utterly fantastic songs, many Kanno songs for example.
Can you be more specific? What have you had trouble with as such? Songs that were already significantly jazzy, as far as I could discern from your previous interview with zzeroparticle?
Yeah, it could be that they’re jazzy, but more perhaps that they’re already very elaborate compositions, meaning there’s not a simple blueprint underneath that you can boil things down to. Those tracks we really have to think hard about, because we don’t want to be just playing songs, but really contribute to them. Which is why I’m very proud of our versions of “Aimo,” “Ai No Field,” and “Tsuki No Mayu” for example, as those definitely did not come easy, in any part of the recording process!
Interesting! I’m a (very, very) amateur arranger myself, and I definitely feel this is the case, especially when you’re limited by the small group size inherent to jazz.
I arranged one song on Vol. 1, “Children of the Light,” which I loved to do, but I quickly realized it wasn’t good for my production of the record, neither of that track nor the others. I was too attached.
Actually, that point is really interesting. Can you elaborate? Did you feel, perhaps, that you were micromanaging its development due to the strict vision you had for that piece?
Yes, that, and also just losing the bird’s eye view of things. Producing a Platina Jazz record involving around 15 musicians and 15-18 songs, to be recorded in quite a limited time, and then edited and mixed, requires one to sometimes make pretty brute decisions based on a complete overlook of the whole project. It’s ok if one of the arrangers stayed up until 5AM the day before the recording, polishing some finer details of the arrangements. But I need to be there with the engineer at 7am and be dead-on sharp.
Fascinating, really. I’m a little curious as to what Martin Persson’s role in Platina is. I may have criticized him a bit before, but he is really a very, very talented musician, and he really seems to have a critical role in Platina. Yet, I don’t think you mentioned him being at the “arranger meeting.”
Oh my mistake, he totally is! It was maybe so presumed in my mind I forgot to mention it. In a way, the whole project circulates around Martin, but deviating out to different ends, represented by each other arranger. Martin arranges all of the trio pieces, most of the smaller-setting songs, and many of the string section ones.
Now, the project has grown into more of a group collaboration, whereas on Vol. 1 it was very much me and him. For one of the horn players, I could pretty much choose any musician I liked, who could play the way I wanted. But for piano, I needed someone who would thoroughly understand the original music, in a very analytical and also respectful way. He’s not a jazz “snob” in that sense. Not that the other musicians are snobby, but there is certainly a thing with Martin that he is not at all judgmental about what he listens to.
Many jazz pianists, however skilled, would not have been able to work on this project. Martin is also extremely versatile, both in his head and in his fingers. Even though we have a fairly consistent sound in a sense, as far as the jazz tradition is concerned, we pretty much move between the 30s and 60s, with small excursions to other eras and sub-genres every once in a while.
While that might still sound like “good ol’ jazz” to most, which is our objective, it still requires a lot of different playing skills, and I think this is particularly true for the pianist.
Certainly understandable. I assume it was a purposeful move on your part not to perform directly in the recordings? It seems a goal of yours to limit yourself to the production side.
Oh that would not have worked at all. It would have required having another producer first of all, which would have been much harder to find than to find a pianist. But mostly, I’m not as good as Martin. I mean, I play in my own projects, but my style is pretty distinct, and fairly narrow. I’m definitely not anywhere near as educated in different styles, nor as technically skilled, as Martin (or as Carl Bagge, who is also a pianist).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this fascinating interview.