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Get to Know Hanami: Jazz Inspired by Japan

Andrew Trim was born near Chicago, but in 1988, when he was five years old, his parents, who were missionaries, moved their family to Nagano, Japan. Trim guesses that the six people in his family were probably the only white people in a city of 60,000 at the time.

“I was in a very remote place where I was definitely out of place,” Trim says. “No doubt about it.”

During his thirteen years in school in Nagano, Trim practiced the Japanese art of drawing kanji with a brush, wrote haiku, and in music class he learned old Japanese melodies. Some of these melodies would end up on the debut album by Hanami, the group he formed in 2011 in Chicago. Trim moved to Chicago after spending nearly a decade in Colorado, a period that included stints at Colorado Christian University and the University of Colorado, as well as a heavy exploration of jazz guitar.

When Trim and saxophonist Mai Sugimoto (who also lived in Japan as a child before moving to the United States) originally formed Hanami, they intended to play a one-off gig to raise funds for the victims of Japan's Tohoku tsunami. But the duo continued to play shows and eventually became a quartet that recorded an album of all-Japanese songs.

“A specific song on the first record that’s the song that plays over the loudspeaker at school to tell everybody it’s time to go home,” Trim says. “I would hear that melody every day. Those are certainly things that are entrenched into who I am as a person.”

Instead of relying strictly on jazz-instilled arrangements of Japanese compositions, Trim figured there weren’t a lot of artistic possibilities unless he started writing music especially for the group Hanami. While Hanami’s original material is somewhat rooted in Japanese music, there are also elements of jazz, a crossover that Trim says dates back to the '60s, when people like John Coltrane were working on dealing some of that harmonic content.

However, Trim notes that Hanami’s instrumentation, including guitar, sax, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet and Charles Rumback’s drums, is specifically designed to avoid emulating the '60s.

“If I had done a band where there was a bass player and the configuration was like tenor and guitar and bass and drums, we could have very easily gotten to that John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner zone of playing this Japanese music...." Trim says. “I think it would have been a little less interesting. I was hoping to try to find a way to use that language but sonically sound very different...from that music, or least try to have it be more of a departure than a reoccurrence of the same kind of thing.”

On Hanami’s new album, The Only Way to Float Free, slated for release on Friday, April 22, but available at the group’s Thursday, March 10, show at Nocturne, the quartet recorded mainly originals (save for a rendition of the 1901 song “Kojo No Tsuki"), and some of the songs are inspired by Japan in one way or another. Trim’s muscular and frantic composition “Kita Nagano Motorcycle Gang,” for example, was motivated by a time when he was around twelve or thirteen years old and nearly got knifed by a motorcycle gang.

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“I was sort of reminiscing about that story to someone, and I decided to write a crazy song that would reflect the energy and the tension of a moment like that, when you find yourself in a situation you never intended to find yourself in," he says.

“Shira Ito No Taki,” on the other hand, is an odd-metered, slightly dreamy cut about a waterfall that Trim used to hike to see a lot as a kid. “It’s a small waterfall, but it’s actually very picturesque and beautiful,” he remembers. “It’s really long, and the way that the water flows off of it, it looks like there’s just white string draped over this rock formation. They basically all come down in these little strings all the way across it. That song was a way of me trying to capture that feeling.”

The album's title was borrowed from Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. “In the book, he’s talking about death,” Trim says. “That’s what he means when he says, ‘the only way to float free.' He’s talking about dying. When I was working on the record and writing the music and thinking about the vision for what this album was kind of about in a more overarching way, there are a lot of themes of water.”

Hanami performs on Thursday, March 10, at Nocturne.

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