I hate to say it but Osaka guitar duo Gontiti (pronounced Gon-Chi-Chi) really nailed it when they called themselves the creators of “The Most Comfortable Music On Earth”. You see, I first encountered the music of Gontiti in the most unlikeliest of likeliest places. On some fateful day, I was with my partner at a Japanese hair salon, in some far-flung Chicago suburb, only to stumble upon something quietly playing on the salon’s only source for music — the built-in speakers of the receptionist’s iMac. Softly playful, lightly experimental, and quite tasteful, it was this bit of music that cut through the languid malaise cut after other soothing cut of of bossa nova, or jazz-indebted, modern, Japanese music that took my attention away from whatever Wiki-hole I was in, passing the time away. It was — according to Google’s “Sound Search” app — Gontiti’s soundtrack to the animated version of the yonkoma manga series Bonobono, a fact I remembered mightily to note down electronically, somewhere.
Unlike most American hair salons, what differentiates a Japanese hair salon from the norm is how quiet and organized it’s run. Uni-Hair Salon had all the hallmarks of an environment meant to put you at ease, of an environment meant to lighten up your headspace for what for most people’s can be a stressful situation: getting a hair cut. Appointed with very minimal decoration and interior design that would make any MUJI photographer blush with envy, Uni-Hair Salon leaves no room for errant boomboxes or attention-grabbing makeup displays and televisions. You’re here for one thing only: to get darn near the best haircut of your entire adult life, cut by a master, who goes by Masa-san, that keeps conversations as concise and worthwhile as his tool belt full of various hair styling tools. Clean, precise, and (most importantly) inviting, it is such a place, run by such people, that bares all the marks of experience, of specialized craftsmen and craftswomen who know how to keep anything that is timeless, au courant.
Gontiti’s Legacy of Madam Q, a discovery that came after this trip, similarly has all the hallmarks of such left-field surprise. Released over a decade before that soundtrack, right in the thick of Japan’s golden techno-pop period, Gontiti’s album had a startling difference in sound and ideas that keeps it relevant decades later. It could be because “Gonzalez” Mikami and “Titi” Matsumura allowed their spheres of musical influence — the gentle bossa nova of Gilberto/Jobim, the wilting technique of jazz, and of soft, impressionist, classical music — to stay vibrant and forward-thinking in a way that was both comfortable to them and inviting to others. Lightly experimental, lightly reverential, and lightly serious, Legacy of Madam Q found them being joined by others like them — Hajime Mizoguchi, Ma-To, Kazuto Shimizu and Bun Itakura from Killing Time, Hitoshi Watanabe from Shi-Shonen, and future PaRappa the Rapper designer Masaya Matsuura — to create a mercurial version of themselves on tape.
A mutual love of bossa nova and the burgeoning contemporary minimalist movement had allowed them to get this far. Everything, from their debut 脇役であるとも知らずに, a gorgeous set of BGM (background music) that met their easygoing melodies with ambient extremities, to their previous album, 1986’s Sunday Market which went “all in” on alien samba guitar duets and dizzying jazz windups for all your future spa salons, had prepared them for their next step, the unbridled Gontiti-ness of Legacy of Madame Q.
A lived-in version of their equally brilliant Physics, Legacy of Madame Q put the intricate duophonic arrangements of Gontiti in the hands of other instruments. Joined by all sorts of orchestration, both orchestral and Japanese, it was both a love letter to classic Pop and to forgotten Japanese traditional music…albeit with the air of two boys who were just as interested in mucking around with said formulas.
“貧しい王家 – Mazushii Ohke” begins it all with Hajime Mizoguchi lending his touch of tribal-accented modern classical music to create something that sounds like the halfway point between a night on a canoe and a faraway dream to some half-imagined romantic monochrome film you could have sworn exists. Oodles of sonic sentimentality that are perfectly punctuated by Gontiti’s plaintive plucks. The next track “大陸風に向かって – Tairikufu Ni Mukatte” arranged by future Parappa the Rapper game designer/composer Masaya Matsuura ebbs and flows like a particularly wistful bossa nova getting overcome by a ghost in a machine dead set on breathing itself back to life. Echoey and vibrant, Gontiti’s tasteful restraint lets the track build to its wonderful, cozy groove. What follows is a classic Gontiti electro-dance jaunt called “Foolish Parade” which could soundtrack the coolest stage of your favorite tropical-themed video game level. The staying power, of course, is in the rest of the tracks.
Breezing right by you with little hooks that grab you the more you listen to them, from highlights like the woozy sampledelic samba of “大陸風に向かって – Tairikufu Ni Mukatte”, the angular Balearic swooner “Blue Flame”, to the pointillist ender “Mica” you hear slight edges — maybe an errant synth accompaniment or a sonic tweak — coloring the timeless melodies, that always hover around a welcome, pleasant pitch. Although you’re never going to be blown away by Gontiti, what will happen, much like it does in Legacy of Madam Q, is that there will alway be something in their cozy space to quietly take your breath away — a rarity nowadays, for sure.
Just to end on a different note: can you believe, I just realized that Uni-Hair Salon is giving away limited edition CD’s of the wonderful jazz and bossa nova you can hear in their store? It seems like there is always time to make another, welcome discovery someday soon or at least have someone get another, decent haircut…