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Sen Morimoto - Cannonball! Music Album Reviews

Sen Morimoto - Cannonball! Music Album Reviews
The Kyoto-born, Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist uses his nonchalant flow and the sharp instincts he acquired playing saxophone as a kid to craft a dynamic, introspective jazz-rap debut.

The Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto started playing the saxophone when he was ten years old. It’s his proto-instrument, the one that shaped his core understanding of how music is made. On his dynamic jazz-rap debut album Cannonball!, he brings the instincts it taught him to every element of his music, delivering a swinging, adventurous experience on each of the record’s nine tracks.

Saxophonists are often capable of hopping from note to note faster than any of their jazz-band counterparts, which means that, at its best, their music is characterized by dynamism and velocity. Those who know how to handle the instrument take advantage of its pace to explore as much territory as possible over the course of any given composition. That approach is reflected in the phrasing of every instrument on Cannonball!—the keys, the drums, the synths—and, more generally, in its impressive breadth of tones, moods, and subjects. The record moves like a kite in steady wind, dipping, swaying, and wrinkling in unexpected and deeply satisfying directions.

Motion is a defining feature of Morimoto’s artistry: Born in Kyoto and raised in Massachusetts, he came into his own after moving to Chicago several years ago. Now, he’s an active participant in a Windy City scene that also includes the Pivot Gang rap collective and the singer KAINA, who is featured on Cannonball!, and he’s spoken openly about the way that artistic community has inspired him. While his raps are centered mostly on his own ideas and feelings, Morimoto’s impressive flow and nonchalant delivery contribute to the impression that he takes the music, but not himself, seriously.

“This Is Not,” the second track on Cannonball!, gives the album’s first indication of his musical and emotional range. It opens with staccato stabs of guitar and drums, paired with vague, restless lyrics that exude frustration. Then, about a minute and a half into the song, Morimoto has an outburst. “I thought everything was simple as sugar and water,” he sings, and suddenly his irritation with the world turns into irritation at his own naivety. In the aftermath of that line, the song transforms radically, until it’s bursting with sweet harmonies. The celerity and elegance with which the moods of his compositions shift is remarkable. The album’s final track, “People Watching,” opens joyously, with fleet-footed sax and chimes, then turns slow and pensive before launching into a jaunty melody. It’s a six-minute song, but all of those shifts take place within the first 21 seconds.

At his best moments, Morimoto’s speed and range is matched by lyrics that move easily from abstraction to specificity and from the personal to the observational, usually over drums that zip breathlessly along as if rolling down a hill. The title track transitions from pure imagery—“deep end, cannonball, shallow smile, evil moon”—to personal declarations: “I want to dance until I feel all right again.” Aside from KAINA, Cannonball! has only one credited feature, from rapper Reason Being, whose deft flow powers the terrific “Picture of a Painting”—a song that reimagines the “most photographed barn in the world” scene from DeLillo’s White Noise for the Instagram age. It’s one of the most pleasant pieces of music on the record, but as if to dilute that pleasant feeling, Morimoto’s lyrics are cutting: “Everyone’s so salty I think I can almost taste it.”

The artist’s sense of humor brings some levity to his sulkier declarations. On “This Is Not,” in the midst of declaring that “nobody can sit with me and no one can belittle me” he breaks to tell his listeners that “my keyboard is broken so this song is missing middle D.” But because his lyrics seem to emerge spontaneously, maybe even thoughtlessly, they sometimes provoke an eye roll, reaching for depth that isn’t really present. “When was the last intelligent conversation you had that didn’t have you lost?” he asks on “How It Is”—and his persona is so appealing, so breezy and light, that it takes a second to realize that this is a silly thing to say.

Rap-influenced jazz and jazz-influenced rap are, of course, everywhere these days; Morimoto’s music will surely sound familiar to fans of GoGo Penguin and BADBADNOTGOOD. But at this early stage of his career, his most direct predecessor is Ish Butler, whose group Digable Planets made jazz-rap songs in a stirring, thoughtful mode that Morimoto’s music most closely resembles. In a 2014 interview, speaking about his more recent project, Shabazz Palaces, Butler said that the duo’s music incorporated jazz in that they relied on “capturing instinct and improvisation and impulse and letting it stand.”

That improvisational approach helps to explain Morimoto’s occasional lyrical shortcomings, and also why they aren’t that irritating. He is young, and his music reflects that, bouncing with the earnest energy and romance of young bohemianism. Cannonball! sounds fresh every time you press play. It may be unpredictable, but most of its choices work out just fine.

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