Back in another musical lifetime, decades before Senri Oe was wowing audiences with his breezy, lighthearted melodies and adventurous improvisations as one of NYC’s most versatile and dynamic jazz pianists, he was topping the charts and headlining stadiums in his native Japan. On the infectious and melodic, beautifully flowing tunes from his newly released album Boys & Girls, the pianist joyfully connected these distinct eras in his career, bringing alternately sensual and playfully rhythmic jazz dynamics to some of his classic hits from the 80’s and 90’s.
Five of the tracks during his engaging one hour set were from the new collection, including the lush ballad “Flowers,” the rollicking, stride-influenced “Wallabee Shoes” and “Rain,” which eased from elegant to frenetic in a heartbeat. Oe also represented some of his previous albums with pieces whose rhythms ranged from sly and swinging to soft and graceful. His musical style is very much like that of contemporary jazz great David Benoit.
Commanding attention to every detail with only a grand piano, Oe held the nearly full house rapt, their every emotion hanging on the next pounding chord or gentle upper register flurry of notes to see where he would take his colorful melodies next.
Sometimes, he would vary tempos and moods within the same song, as if narrating a tale with an emotional arc. Remarkably, at times, the pianist also crossed his right hand over his left arm so that the right hand would play the lower chords as the left played the middle and upper ranges. Most jazz oriented shows need a trio or quartet to convey emotional subtleties and heavy swinging – but Oe created all the percussive energy himself.
Dressed in hipster blue blazer and fedora and wearing cool glasses, Oe cut a stylish figure even before he sat down to play. Once at the piano, the powerful movement of his arms and fingers were like that of a maestro orchestrating softer expressions and deeper chords and crescendos. And though his English is heavily accented, he is a hilarious storyteller, amusing the crowd between many of the pieces with brisk, amusing anecdotes about how he first came to love jazz as a teen before pop stardom beckoned, and reminiscing about an eventful earlier trip to L.A.
Perhaps the most amazing part of Oe’s story is that he only decided to move to New York and study jazz in his late 40’s. Now, about a decade later, he’s got a whole different fan base (even as some of his pop fans scratch their heads), a batch of excellent albums of various jazz related styles and configurations, and amazing skills as a composer, improviser and performer.
Oe has come full circle, and he showcased the fruits of his daring and inspiring journey this evening at Vitello’s, regaling longtime fans and winning some musical converts in the process.