UA x Kikuchi Naruyoshi: cure jazz

There’s a bit of Engrish word play happening when UA and Kikuchi Naruyoshi bill cure jazz as a "standard jazz" album.

Indeed, there are jazz standards on the album, but the strictly acoustic setting — not a pop hook or an exotic sample to be found anywhere — makes it a "standard jazz" album.

In classic UA fashion, she once again challenges her listeners by making another seismic creative shift. It’s fitting with the big band abandon of Sun and the avant-garde electronics of Breathe.

cure jazz is anchored by a jazz quartet — piano, saxophone, upright bass and drums. Some strings, percussion and organ pop up from time to time, but the quartet is as traditional as it gets.

The track listing consists of covers and originals in equal numbers — six each.

UA doesn’t have the greatest English diction, and she may have a similar handle on Chinese, French and Italian, all of which are featured on the album. She sings not a single syllable of Japanese, and it can get distracting for listeners.

Diction aside, UA has a masterful command of the covers. Before her start as a pop artist, she sang in jazz clubs, and cure jazz is a nice homecoming.

She conveys the smokey melancholy of Mel Torme’s "Born to be blue", and she infuses Paul Williams’ "Ordinary fool" with bittersweetness.

Her interpretation of "Over the rainbow" is extreme. She takes five minutes to sing the first two verses of the song, and another five to finish the song at a normal pace. It’s an intense performance but perhaps too long-winded.

The originals on the album are where UA and Kikuchi go wild.

"Music on the planet where dawn never breaks" takes after Charles Mingus with its spoken-word lyrics. "This city is too jazzy to be in love" feels like a lost showtune.

"Honeys and scorpions" dives straight into Latin rhythms with a big band, while the organ and congos of "Hymn of Lambarene" could have appeared on either Breathe or Sun.

cure jazz is a lengthy work — at 73 minutes, it demands some degree of patience from the listener.

As with her previous two albums, it’s easy to recognize the ambition of the music, but your mileage may vary when it comes to appeal. Unlike those albums, cure jazz features some of the most melodic work UA has done since 2002’s Dorobou.

It’s also refreshing to hear UA in an organic setting. After years of listening to her in all manner of styles — pop, rock, avant-garde, electronica, children’s music — the live acoustic environment of cure jazz suits her incredibly well.

Whatever will she come up with next?