To the Utmost Limit: Mouse on the Keys

giphyOne of the wildest drummers alive, Mouse on the Keys cofounder Akira Kawasaki is convinced that years of headbanging while pummeling his kit was the cause of a small stroke in 2011. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to my utmost limit,” he says, raising the obvious question: what’ve you done for music lately?

Wherever they’ve traveled Mouse on the Keys have turned disinterested observers into true believers. Playing a rare Ottawa show (TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival: 6pm Feb. 7, NAC Fourth Stage, $22), the Japanese trio’s music has been described as “astounding, technically complex, yet emotionally affecting” (AllMusic Guide). Their unique dual keyboard/piano and drums configuration and frenetic prog-jazz-funk sound is matched by mindblowing video accompaniment, a remnant of their origin as an art installation project.

It’s often the encounters between cultures that lead to the most fascinating advances; think of Osaka’s legendary BOREDOMS and their mutation of American noise rock, or Kurt Cobain-fav Shonen Knife’s pioneering pop-punk. Mouse on the Keys is emblematic of a Japanese approach to American jazz, a revered genre in the nation. They have a formidable knowledge of jazz’s long history, but few preconceptions about the genre’s “purity”: Mouse’s obsession is with rhythm, complex interlocking figures that have led critics to label them math rock, post-rock and even modern classical. There’s also little regard for stifling manners: some shows find the band moshing with the crowd or literally climbing the walls of the stage.

On the 7th, the NAC’s intimate Fourth Stage will be transformed by projected images, shifting symbols, 3D objects and evocations of their home city Tokyo. A hypermodern space, Tokyo represents the unreachable endpoint of all cities: by the time another city approaches the Tokyo of the present, inevitably it has moved on into another future.

The band’s recent music has been deeply affected by the aftermath of the disastrous 3/11 earthquakes and nuclear meltdown, their keys taking on an elegiac cast despite the frenzied backbeats and the lidless glare of their machinery. The band learned of the destruction while on tour in Europe. Pianist/keyboardist Daisuke Niitome recalls: “This is going to sound extreme, but I thought people were buying into a false sense of security and I seriously thought we were all going to get contaminated and die. Since then, I’ve started thinking more about the way I live my life. It was a turning point for me.”

Complex, yet affecting. Precise, yet wild. This is music without practical limits.