On the cover of his newest album, Lights Out, former Vermonter Jesse Forest sits proudly with his guitar, his signature instrument. He's a dead ringer for early-career Elvis Costello, but instead of infectious New Wave punk, he plays breezy pop-jazz. Forest is an accomplished performer, composer and arranger, and he'll even give you guitar lessons — if you're in Japan, that is. After years of playing professionally in Vermont and New York City, Forest has been living abroad since 2010. He's jumped into the Japanese jazz community and shows no signs of returning to his previous life in the Green Mountains.
Unlike the zany shibuya-kei Japanese pop-jazz sound that was popular in the 1990s — think Pizzicato Five — Forest's sound is traditional, as is much of the contemporary Japanese jazz scene. Brushed, shuffling drumbeats form the foundation for nearly every track. Vocal scatting and improvised solos remind us we're listening to a purist. Kaoru Azuma, a frequent collaborator, provides vocals. Azuma's voice is light and lilting, reminiscent of Pink Martini's China Forbes. Only two tracks are purely instrumental, "501" and "Stumble Around."
At Studio Forte in Kobe, Japan, Forest and Azuma teamed up with an ensemble of four other musicians and recorded the CD over two days not quite a year ago. Forest's melodies are fresh and unpredictable, which is fitting given the long tradition of improvisation in jazz. Azuma's delicate vocals lend poignancy to the more emotional songs such as "I Will Wait." The compositions are densely packed, and each features multiple solos. On the title track, Tomura Kuniaki (saxophone) and Hirose Miki (trumpet) shine as they energetically ping-pong over Forest's outstanding guitar solos.
Lyrically, Forest comes off as a romantic and an optimist. "The World Today," an ode to looking on the bright side, is one of the album's most upbeat cuts. Azuma sings about the stress and strife of modern existence but also dismisses it: "I look to the light that shines / I know I'll find my way," she sings. On "You & Me," one of the album's finest cuts, Azuma finds true harmony with the brass section as she sings of a relationship borne by a vast ocean of love.
Lights Out is a record to suit almost any mood or situation. It'll make your cocktail party sparkle or your road trip zoom. It might even make scrubbing your bathroom floor more enjoyable.
Jesse Forest plays two local album-release shows this week: Thursday, August 11, at Radio Bean in Burlington, and Friday, August 12, at Positive Pie in Montpelier. Lights Out is available on iTunes.