Ryo Takaiwa - 10

 Ryo Takaiwa - 10

With their unique styles, the greatest vocalists in history tend to be ripe for parody: Elvis, Sinatra, Michael, Prince, Yazawa, Kuwata. Whether it’s in a karaoke box, played for laughs (Richard Cheese, Frank Bennett) or full on impersonation, these legends continue to grow beyond their original/true incarnations. So if you possess a distinct style that invites imitation, you might have a shot at musical immortality.

Based on that criteria, Ryo Takaiwa (高岩遼) may be on his way to stardom, fulfilling a dream he’s had since he was 18 years old. While you may have heard his voice as a member of Sanabagun or Swingerz, on “10,” he finally gets to put his voice front and center of the action. At the same time, this album could easily have been a traditional set of covers which would place it in Michael Buble territory (yawn), but we are rescued from that fate with the forward-thinking production by Yaffle of Tokyo Recordings. If you count Jamie Cullum or Harry Connick Jr as progressive, the combination of Takaiwa and Yaffle will blow your mind, bringing future vibes to traditional jazz standards as well as creating original tracks in Japanese for something really fresh.

The star of the show is of course, Takaiwa’s voice, which has a deep rich timbre and a twang that Elvis would be proud of. It’s not as sharp as Sinatra’s, but it really suits melancholy, romantic tracks as it naturally sounds like its tinged with sadness, regret, being down and out. Paired with his mobster/delinquent image (solid build, broad chin, big hair), it’s perfect for those late nights on the streets of Tokyo, a concept Crazy Ken has played to a different tune. As his partner in crime, Yaffle provides the full complement of brass for the big band sound, yet there’s also an edge to it, a definite punch. The horns serve as slick shooters, punctuating the tracks with quick riffs and killer solos. It works great on “I’m Gonna Live ‘till I Die,” the original YOLO track which Yaffle gives a secret agent flavor, and on the original “Romantic.” But the key to the latter is the future beats, the very modern switch from 2-step through four to the floor plus minimal breakdown with staccato snares. And yet, it stays true to form because it’s always anchored by that voice – Takaiwa even throws in a Moon River reference. His take on “Ol’ Man River” is more traditional, and the brass takes a back seat while Takaiwa showcases his range, accompanied by piano and woodwind. Despite his Japanese pronunciation, the way his voice trembles gives it the proper feeling, and his strength gives it credibility.

“Black Eyes,” another original, has plenty of swagger, but it goes close to over the top as Takaiwa can sound a little silly if he’s trying too hard – it’s a tough act to balance when you have such a distinct style. It gets better in the second half with the long solo and the extended breakdown. Meanwhile, “Strangers in the Night,” made most famous by Sinatra, is recorded as a duet/bromance with Okamoto Sho of the Okamotos, which is a bit of a script flip as it’s commonly a romantic duet with a guy and girl. But they turn it into their own with the cool bass riff and a bouncier hip hop groove. “Someday Looking Back Today (Space Neon)” is another forward-looking track with a melodic bass line and spacey keyboards for a disco flavor, but changes gears throughout.

“10” is a fantastic album and a fitting vehicle for the launch of a “star” in the old-school sense. At age 28, Ryo Takaiwa has a long career ahead, and so much potential in what he and Yaffle could do in the future with other standards like “It Was a Very Good Year” or “Autumn in Vermont” that may be a natural fit, or what they might try with uptempo numbers like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” or “I Could Have Danced All Night.” And of course, their original material – this album even comes with hip-hop style interludes. Something for everyone.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, a star is born.

Royce Leong