Music Musings: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (1990-1996)

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, 2015
Music Musings: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (1997-2003) can be found here.

Since hearing their track "Lupin the 3rd '78" when I was in junior high, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra has became my favorite Japanese instrumental group, as I've expressed before. Now a nine-piece band, TSPO began as a collective of musicians in the mid-1980s, which essentially whittled itself down to 10 members by 1990. Over the years, there has been changes in the line up; as of now, six of the original members remain.

Like any band, TSPO's sound has also changed and evolved over the years. This post focuses on the years between their major debut in 1990 to the mid-90s, a time period marked by their progression from an unapologetically ska and jazz sound to a little more mainstream.

Skapara Tõjõ (1990)
1st Album: Skapara Tõjõ スカパラ登場 (1990)
Debut albums are sometimes a dark point in the discography of even the most popular musicians as oftentimes they reflect an unrefined air—not the case with TSPO. While modestly named Skapara Tõjõ or Skapara's Introduction, TSPO's first album is explosive and uncompromisingly in-your-face. The unfiltered background noise of TSPO clapping, cheering, and enjoying their music as they play it, characteristic of this time period of their discography, gives an interesting live effect to tracks like "Vampire", "Kozo no Koshin", and "Uhan no Hito".

Although it isn't the best reflection of his singing ability, "Nigai Namida" is a great introduction to Cleanhead Gimura's vocals. "Getsumen Butou", "Inishie no Hana", and "Kimi to Boku", the more tranquil tracks on the album, give the listener a quietly sinister, relaxing seaside vacation, and lullaby feel respectively; although lower tempo, all three songs are as charming as the heavier numbers. "Tin Tin Deo", my favorite song on this album, is a great mixture of subtile and upbeat. A great cover of Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack" is also included on this album.

Top picks: "Getsumen Butou"; Inishie no Hana"; "Tin Tin Deo"

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (1990)
2nd Album: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra 東京スカパラダイスオーケストラ (1990)
A prolific year for TSPO, the band's self-titled second album of 1990 is a short collection of six songs. "Skaravan" has become a fan favorite and the upbeat track marked by it's distinctive solos (my favorite being the piano solo) finds its way into most TSPO live concerts even now. "Pedorazu", a cover of the Tetris theme, makes for a great album opener and is an awesome rearrangement of the original. "Christmaska", a cover of "Joy to the World", is also a lovely homage to its predecessor. "Just a Little Bit of Your Soul" is a tune rooted in funk, and makes a reappearance on Grand Prix (1995).

Top picks: "Pedorazu", "Skaravan", "Just a Little Bit of Your Soul"

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra Live (1991)
1st Live Album: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra Live 東京スカパラダイスオーケストラライブ (1991)

The garish cover of TSPO's first live album is an honest reflection of its sound. The band's ability to entertain through their sound is apparent in their constant freestyling and explosive harmonies. Vocalist Gimura shines in this live album with his authentic cover of Bobby Bland's "36-22-36". Although short, "Youkai Ningen" is definitely my favorite track on this album and shows off Gimura's unique vocal range beautifully.

Top picks: "Shot in the Dark", "36-22-36", "Youkai Ningen"

World Famous (1991)
3rd Album: World Famous ワールドフェイムス (1991)

Although TSPO was not yet world famous when this album was released, the cocky title is fitting of the band's humor. One of my favorite albums from this time period, World Famous is an upbeat mixture of ska, jazz, and funk. 

All songs on this album appeal to me, particularly TSPO's cover of the Sesame Street theme song to which they added a touch of Black Gospel. While it's instrumental, "You are a Miracle" sounds like an unconventional love song, as expressed through the giggling inserted in the later half of the track. "World Famous" is my second favorite instrumental song of the album. I don't like circus music, but the song seems to make a joke of it in an interesting way, and the band's screaming of "world famous!" throughout the song is pretty comical. 

"Jungle Boogie" is the best vocal number on the album in my opinion. It fits the definition of boogie rather traditionally, but Gimura's touch makes the boogie shuffle sound fresh.

Top picks: "Hole in One"; "Sesame Street"; "Jungle Boogie"; "You are a Miracle", "World Famous"

Pioneers (1993)
4th Album: Pioneers パイオニアーズ (1993)

Although it's certainly better than Tokyo Strut (1996), Pioneers is one of my least favorite albums from this time period. While it's a good listen, most of the tracks are somewhat forgettable. Although it's rather unassuming, "A Piece of Peace" is for me the most memorable of the instrumental tracks. The solos are relaxing and I usually listen to it a few times in succession.

Gimura's vocals shine on  "Marai no Tora" and "Sweet Peach Queen". A comparison of the two songs undoubtably reveal Gimura's talent as he uses an almost harsh range of tones for the former and switches to a softer, sweet timbre for the latter. It almost sounds like each song is performed by two different people. I also adore the Black Gospel homage at the end of "Sweet Peach Queen".

After the release of this album, TSPO founder and percussionist ASA-CHANG left the band to pursue a solo career.

Top picks: "Marai no Tora"; "A Piece of Peace"; "Sweet Peach Queen"

Fantasia (1994)
5th Album: Fantasia ファンタジア (1994)

Fantasia is the perfect name for this magical album, and it is my favorite not only in this time period, but out of their long discography. While it isn't exactly rare, I was overjoyed to find the first press release of this album in Tokyo. Needless to say, I can fangirl about this record all day long!

There are three versions of the title track "Fantasia" on the album. The first is a soft, loungey tune; the second is like jazz married with soft rock; and the third—my favorite—is whimsical with a couple of vocal lines from Gimura.

Out of the instrumental tracks, "Steppin' on the Road (Aruite I)" and "Sweet G" are probably my favorite (although it's so hard to choose). The former is a relaxing jazz track and puts me in a good mood with it's optimistic tune, and TSPO's humming and general noise-making at the end are a nice touch. The latter was named after member GAMO; his impressive sax solos are are the foundation of the track, which is essentially a celebration of his skill.

"Dream Express" makes me think of Mardi Gras for some reason with it's Louisiana jazz style and funky vocals from Gimura with precise English diction. He also shows off his interesting inflection in "Akai Tori no Ballad"; you can hear the passion in his voice on this heartwarming track. Yuichi Oki's simple piano chords and Tatsuyuki Oki's precise, occasionally heavy drumming compliment Gimura's vocals exquisitely. Through images of space (i.e., "light", "galaxies", "shooting stars") the lyrics of the song speak of dreams and hopes. I find this song particularly emotional because despite it's positivity and references to happiness and the future, Gimura likely knew he would die soon.

This was the last album Gimura participated in; he passed away from brain cancer in 1995. 

Top picks: Every song on this album is dear to me, but "Akai Tori no Ballad" and "Fantasia III" are my favorites

Grand Prix (1995)
6th Album: Grand Prix グランプリ (1995)

Grand Prix was released in honor of Cleanhead Gimura (shown flying on the album cover). This cheery record is a complete about-face for TSPO in terms of sound; it's nothing short of a contemporary pop album. For hardcore TSPO fans, this turning point is either a good or bad thing; it's the latter for me. I enjoy pop when it's well-executed, and the jazz-influenced pop in this album is awesome. 

Several famous musicians and actors like Takashi Matsumoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, Haruomi Hosono, YOU, and Mari Hamada among many others were invited to lend their vocal, instrumental, and compositional skills on the album.

"Pandora Times" and "Hanafubuki (Ai daro, ai)" are the only instrumental tracks. Grandiose in nature (no pun intended), Aoki's high-energy drumming skills shine on those two tracks, and on "Watermelon" which features a twin drum rhythm between Aoki and Takahashi. It's my favorite vocal track on the album as Takahashi's slightly raspy voice is made for love songs.

Continuing their tradition of covering famous songs, TSPO offer their own renditions of Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow"; Bob Theiele and George D. Weiss' "What a Wonderful World"; and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together", all of which are on-point and respectful of the originals. 

If you understand even a little Japanese, the two radio play style intermissions in the album will amuse you! 

Top picks: I love all the songs on this album, and it's definitely in my top five. If I had to choose: "Watermelon" and "Hanafubuki (Ai daro, ai)"

Tokyo Strut (1996)
7th Album: Tokyo Strut トーキョストット (1996)

Tokyo Strut is probably the most subdued album of this time period and is a slight return to the band's jazz roots. Honestly, it's one of my least favorite albums of TSPO's, but it does contain nice tracks. 

The cover of YMO's "Simoon" is the best track on this record in my opinion even though it sounds nothing like the original. In fact, I prefer TSPO's take on the song as it's whimsical and relaxing, especially NARGO and Masahiko Kitahara's trumpet-trombone duet.

ASA-CHANG's replacement, percussionist Hajime Ohmori, debuted on this album.

Top picks: "You Don't Know (What Ska Is)"; "Simoon"; "Gently"; "Don't Mind Baby"

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