meta-scriptTomoko Omura On The Universality Of Japanese Folktales & Her New Album, 'Branches Vol. 2' |
Tomoko Omura

Tomoko Omura

Desmond White


Tomoko Omura On The Universality Of Japanese Folktales & Her New Album, 'Branches Vol. 2'

Violinist/composer Tomoko Omura's new album, 'Branches Vol. 2,' splits the difference between Japanese folk songs and originals inspired by them—and it all crescendos with "Urashima Suite," which exclusively premieres on

GRAMMYs/May 10, 2021 - 08:53 pm

How can people bridge cultural gaps without obsessing over ethnic differences? Maybe the answer lies in feelings and stories as much as music or cuisine. Tomoko Omura, a violinist, composer and arranger, is aware of the role of the intangible in battling xenophobia. This potential for immaterial connection especially applies to Japanese folktales, which deal in the primary components of the human condition—love, death and mystery—in a way anyone can grasp.

"They're stories you can relate to, those folktales," Omura tells over Zoom. "They've been told for a long time for reasons, right? Because we're humans at the end. Those children's folk songs and folktales have lived so long because the messages are strong. I think it's a great way to connect us as humans. It's an easy way to communicate."

For instance, the folk song "Come Firefly" is about the magic of those starry insects. "To Ryan Se" conjures visions of irreversible loss. And "Bow's Dance" is a song of the dwindling Ainu people, an indigenous group from northern Japan. "The culture diminished and the people had to adapt to Japanese culture," Omura explains. "Not so many people know about them."

These three traditional songs appear on Omura's immersive new album, Branches Vol. 2, which arrives June 18 via Outside In Music. "Urashima Suite," one of the album’s three original tracks, premieres exclusively below, with illustrations by Noah MacNeil.

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Featuring masterful performances by guitarist Jeff Miles, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jay Sawyer, Branches Vol. 2 marks the latest installment in Omura's Roots series, which pays homage to her Japanese background. (Roots [2014] and Branches Vol. 1 [2020] precede it.) This elegant album braids jazz with the collective unconscious, using centuries-old melodies to travel from darkness to light. caught up with Tomoko Omura to discuss the inspirations behind Branches Vol. 2, the Japanese traditional songs she used as both framework and springboard, and the role of the folk canon in fostering racial harmony.

Photo: Desmond White

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about your ongoing musical homage to Japan and your relationship with the country.

I moved here, to the States, in 2004. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I [initially] went to university in Japan and started playing jazz over there at the college with my friends. Then, I really, really fell in love with jazz, and I decided to pursue it. I wanted to study more, so I decided to come to the States. Being at Berklee, I decided to do more.

Then, I ended up in New York in 2010. When I went to New York, everyone was doing their own music. I didn't know that was the thing, but then I realized everyone brings their different thing to create new music. That was the time when [I realized], "OK, I have to bring my own thing." That's when I [got in touch with] my Japanese roots.

I started writing a lot of arrangements of preexistent Japanese melodies—Japanese folk songs, Japanese popular music, TV songs—and I had a lot of fun, so I decided to continue with it. That's how I got here, and I have three albums dedicated to my Japanese roots.

What do the traditional songs on Branches Vol. 2 mean in Japanese culture?

"Come Firefly," the first track, is a Japanese folk song. I always liked this song. There are a lot of famous choir versions of the song. It's a song that everyone sings. In the early summer, you see fireflies everywhere, and it just lights up. That's how they communicate with each other, right? And I thought, "Wow, that's pretty sci-fi, communicating with lights." Humans don't do that, but they do.

I had a sci-fi image, so I combined this Japanese folk tale about the firefly into this sci-fi element.

How would you describe that "sci-fi element" in musical terms?

Well, the solo form is open. I use a lot of effects, and the instrumentation is a five-string violin with pedals and electric guitar. I have a keyboard in it also—keyboard, piano, bass and drums. It kind of goes into an electrifying, frayed, extreme, free zone. I told them to imagine a UFO coming above you to take you up. So, everyone was doing that sci-fi theme.

"To Ryan Se" is also a Japanese folk song. It's from that era. Children play the song as they sing. They hold their hands together to make a bridge, and at the end of the song, the bridge goes down and one of the kids gets trapped inside. The lyrics are very vague; it's kind of haunting.

If I had to explain it, it's like, “Passing through, passing through, I am on my way to the shrine in Japan, and it's easy to go there, but it's hard to get back.” But people have imagined in the past, "What does that mean? Does that mean that you might not come back, ever?"

It's very vague, you know what I mean? It's not very obvious. I wanted to have some sort of crazy adventure with the music.

Once again, how did you and your accompanists achieve that?

It's a fast-swinging version of that. Everyone plays in unison, instrumentation-wise. Everyone's playing the theme together, then it gets to a solo section and goes to the piano section. It opens up wide. It slows down, then it comes back to the fast. Then, it goes to a fusion-rock kind of section when the electric guitar takes over, and an epic end.

What can you tell me about "Bow's Dance"?

"Bow's Dance" is a Japanese folk song, but, I should say, an Ainu folk song. Ainu is a tribe in Hokkaido, somewhere in the northern part [of Japan]. They have their own language and culture. They have history on their own; it's sort of connected to Russian ones. But then, the Japanese, early on, took over their territory. There were small wars a long time ago.

The culture diminished and the people had to adapt to Japanese culture. It was almost like the Native Americans to American people. Not so many people know about them. My friend showed me this music of Ainu sung by Umeko Ando. I really loved the sound. It was very unique. It's not typical Japanese folk. I was intrigued, so I was listening to this CD a lot. Recently, I went back to it, listened to it and [thought], "Wow, I should make my version of it." 

"Bow's Dance" is a direct translation. They literally danced with a bow. At the end, it gets sped up, sped up, sped up and people sing together. That's how my arrangement goes at the end. Many repetitions on the same melody.

I just looked up the Ainu. It looks like there are approximately 20,000 of them according to official estimates, but unofficial estimates say there could be many more.

Yeah, they had to adapt and live as mainland Japanese at one point. They were suffering poverty, too. The Japanese gave them a very bad deal after the leader of the Ainu got murdered. It's a sad history, and not so many people know about it anymore. I think it's good to remember, though.

Okinawa is a similar type. They have their own culture, their own language and their own musical instruments. They were in the southern part of Japan and the Ainu were in the northern part. Some historians believe that they are, in fact, derived from the same tribes of mainland Japan before they moved to the North and South, as a lot of people from Eurasia entered Japan and spread in the North and the South and occupied the land.

They had very similar cultures—their own musical instruments, like jaw harps and string instruments; a very similar type. It's a very interesting history.

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Branches Vol. 2 gives me a sorrowful feeling—sorrow, but in a good way. Were you intentionally trying to convey that?

Interesting! I didn't intend it to be. "Urashima [Suite]," at the end of the album, gets kind of happy. I think it starts dark. I didn't want it to end dark, and that's why the end song is a little bit optimistic, musically. Vol. 2 is definitely sadder than the first one.

Obviously, right now, there's a conversation about xenophobia in America in the wake of violence against Asian-Americans. I've been thinking that by sharing folk songs from other traditions, their humanity and history can make people from other countries seem less like interlopers.

Definitely, music can be the savior for that. I think people can connect [that way]. I've performed these songs a lot, and I've often had to explain what the songs are about. They're Japanese folk tales, but people relate to the folk tales a lot! Especially people who are not Japanese. They were fascinated by the story and related to the story and felt, "That's funny," or "That's scary."

They're stories you can relate to, those folk tales. They've been told for a long time for reasons, right? Because we're humans at the end. Those children's folk songs and folk tales have lived so long because the messages are strong. I think it's a great way to connect us as humans. 

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Linda May Han Oh
Linda May Han Oh

Photo: Shervin Lainez


A Year In Alternative Jazz: 10 Albums To Understand The New GRAMMYs Category

"Alternative jazz" may not be a bandied-about term in the jazz world, but it's a helpful lens to view the "genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid" that defines a new category at the 2024 GRAMMYs. Here are 10 albums from 2023 that rise to this definition.

GRAMMYs/Jan 9, 2024 - 02:47 pm

What, exactly, is "alternative jazz"? After that new category was announced ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, inquiring minds wanted to know. The "alternative" descriptor is usually tied to rock, pop or dance — not typically jazz, which gets qualifiers like "out" or "avant-garde."

However, the introduction of the Best Alternative Jazz Album category does shoehorn anything into the lexicon. Rather, it commensurately clarifies and expands the boundaries of this global artform.

According to the Recording Academy, alternative jazz "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres… it may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres."

And the 2024 GRAMMY nominees for Best Alternative Jazz Album live up to this dictum: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; Cory Henry's Live at the Piano; and Meshell Ndegeocello's The Omnichord Real Book.

Sure, these were the standard bearers of alternative jazz over the past year and change — as far as Recording Academy Membership is concerned. But these are only five albums; they amount to a cross section. With that in mind, read on for 10 additional albums from 2023 that fall under the umbrella of alternative jazz.

Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins

The supple and innovative drummer and composer Allison Miller often works in highly cerebral, conceptual spaces. After all, her last suite, Rivers in Our Veins, involves a jazz band, three dancers and video projections.

Therein, Miller chose one of the most universal themes out there: how rivers shape our lives and communities, and how we must act as their stewards. Featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Jason Palmer, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, keyboardist and accordionist Carmen Staff, and upright bassist Todd SickafooseRivers in Our Veins homes in on the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna.

And just as these eastern U.S. waterways serve all walks of life, Rivers in Our Veins defies category. And it also blurs two crucial aspects of Miller's life and career.

"I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music," she told District Fray. "And it's still growing!

M.E.B. - That You Not Dare To Forget

The Prince of Darkness may have slipped away 32 years ago, but he's felt eerily omnipresent in the evolution of this music ever since.

In M.E.B. or "Miles Electric Band," an ensemble of Davis alumni and disciples underscore his unyielding spirit with That You Not Dare to Forget. The lineup is staggering: bassists Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke; saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist John Scofield, a host of others.

How does That You Not Dare To Forget satisfy the definition of alternative jazz? Because like Davis' abstracted masterpieces, like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, the music is amoebic, resistant to pigeonholing.

Indeed, tunes like "Hail to the Real Chief" and "Bitches are Back" function as scratchy funk or psychedelic soul as much as they do the J-word, which Davis hated vociferously.

And above all, they're idiosyncratic to the bone — just as the big guy was, every second of his life and career.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris

The nuances and multiplicities of the Art Ensemble of Chicago cannot be summed up in a blurb: that's where books like Message to Our Folks and A Power Stronger Than Itself — about the AACM — come in.

But if you want an entryway into this bastion of creative improvisational music — that, unlike The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles boxed set, isn't 18-plus hours long — Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris will do in a pinch.

Recorded just a month before the pandemic struck, The Sixth Decade is a captivating looking-glass into this collective as it stands, with fearless co-founder Roscoe Mitchell flanked by younger leading lights, like Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother.

Potent and urgent, engaging the heart as much as the cerebrum, this music sees the Art Ensemble still charting their course into the outer reaches. Here's to their next six decades.

Theo Croker - By The Way

By The Way may not be an album proper, but it's still an exemplar of alternative jazz.

The five-track EP finds outstanding trumpeter, vocalist, producer, and composer Croker revisiting tunes from across his discography, with UK singer/songwriter Ego Ella May weaving the proceedings with her supple, enveloping vocals.

Compositions like "Slowly" and "If I Could I Would" seem to hang just outside the reaches of jazz; it pulls on strings of neo soul and silky, progressive R&B.

Even the music video for "Slowly" is quietly innovative: in AI's breakthrough year, machine learning made beautifully, cosmically odd visuals for that percolating highlight.

Michael Blake - Dance of the Mystic Bliss

Even a cursory examination of Dance of the Mystic Bliss reveals it to be Pandora's box.

First off: revered tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake's CV runs deep, from his lasting impression in New York's downtown scene to his legacy in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.

And his new album is steeped in the long and storied history of jazz and strings, as well as Brazilian music and the sting of grief — Blake's mother's 2018 passing looms heavy in tunes like "Merle the Pearl." 

"Sure, for me, it's all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you're listening to it, you're going to have a completely different experience," Blake told LondonJazz in 2023.

"That's what I love about instrumental music," he continued. "That's what's so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level." Indeed, Dance of the Mystic Bliss can be communed with, with or without context, going in familiar or cold.

And that tends to be the instrumental music that truly lasts — the kind that gives you a cornucopia of references and sensations, either way.

Dinner Party - Enigmatic Society

Dinner Party's self-titled debut EP, from 2020 — and its attendant remix that year, Dinner Party: Dessert — introduced a mightily enticing supergroup to the world: Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder.

While the magnitude of talent there is unquestionable, the quartet were still finding their footing; when mixing potent Black American genres in a stew, sometimes the strong flavors can cancel each other out.

Enigmatic Society, their debut album, is a relaxed and concise triumph; each man has figured out how he can act as a quadrant for the whole.

And just as guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg elevated Dinner Party: Dessert, colleagues like Phoelix and Ant Clemons ride this wave without disturbing its flow.

Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illuminations

The octogenarian tumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith is a standard-bearer of the subset of jazz we call "creative music." And by the weighty, teeming sound of Fire Illuminations, it's clear he's not through surprising us.

Therein, Smith debuts his nine-piece Orange Wave Electric ensemble, which features three guitarists (Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith) and two electric bassists (Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs).

In characteristically sagelike fashion, Smith described Fire Illuminations as "a ceremonial space where one's hearts and conscious can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united."

And if you zoom in from that beatific view, you get a majestic slab of psychedelic hard rock — with dancing rhythms, guitar fireworks and Smith zigzagging across the canvas like Miles. 

Henry Threadgill - The Other One

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill composed The Other One for the late, great Milfred Graves, the percussionist with a 360 degree vantage of the pulse of his instrument and how it related to heart, breath and hands.

If that sounds like a mouthful, this is a cerebral, sprawling and multifarious space: The Other One itself consists of one three-movement piece (titled Of Valence) and is part of a larger multimedia work.

To risk oversimplification, though, The Other One is a terrific example of where "jazz" and "classical" melt as helpful descriptors, and flow into each other like molten gold.

If you're skeptical of the limits and constraints of these hegemonic worlds, let Threadgill and his creative-music cohorts throughout history bulldoze them before your ears.

Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours

Jazz has an ocean of history with spoken word, but this fusion must be executed judiciously: again, these bold flavors can overwhelm each other. Except when they're in the hands of an artist as keen as Linda May Han Oh.

"I didn't want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word," the Malaysian Australian bassist and composer told LondonJazz, explaining that "Antiquity" is the only track on The Glass Hours to feature a recitation from the great vocalist Sara Serpa. "I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more."

Elsewhere, Serpa's crystalline, wordless vocals are but one color swirling with the rest: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer and electronicist Obed Calvaire.

Themed after "the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values," The Glass Hours is Oh's most satisfying and well-rounded offering to date, ensconced in an iridescent atmosphere.

Charles Lloyd - Trios: Sacred Thread

You can't get too deep into jazz without bumping into the art of the trio — and the primacy of it. 

At 85, saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd is currently smoking every younger iteration of himself on the horn; his exploratory fires are undimmed. So, for his latest project, he opted not just to just release a trio album, but a trio of trios.

Trios: Chapel features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; Trios: Ocean is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton; the final, Trios: Sacred Thread, contains guitarists Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain.

These are wildly different contexts for Lloyd, but they all meet at a meditative nexus. Drink it in as the curtains close on 2023, as you consider where all these virtuosic, forward-thinking musicians will venture to next — "alternative" or not.

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Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Brian Tyler Press Photo 2023
Brian Tyler

Photo: Aris Stoulil


'Fast X' Composer Brian Tyler's Career Highlights: Creating a Legacy With The 'Fast' Films, Scoring 'Super Mario Bros,' Befriending Kobe & More

The prolific conductor detailed some of the standout moments of his storied 26-year career, and revealed why the 'Fast X' score is his favorite of the whole franchise.

GRAMMYs/May 22, 2023 - 03:38 pm

Even after nearly 30 years in the entertainment business, Brian Tyler is still seeing his childhood dreams come true. He's scored reboots of Rambo, Rescue Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Power Rangers, and worked with heroes like Steven Spielberg and Danny Elfman.

This year, the award-winning composer added the 2023 reimagining of Super Mario Brothers to his extensive list of dream gigs. Like many kids growing up in the '80s and '90s, Nintendo was a fixture in Tyler's life, so when "Mario" creator Shigeru Miyamoto reached out to him about scoring the reboot, the decision was a no-brainer. 

A longtime admirer of legendary composer John Williams, Tyler decided to craft new themes imbued with what he calls "built-in nostalgia" (á la Williams' E.T. score) while paying homage to the trailblazing game. His strategy worked — the bombastic score has earned praise from critics and fans alike.  

Six weeks after The Super Mario Bros. Movie was released, Tyler had another big-time score hit theaters: Fast X. He has helped craft and evolve the sound of the blockbuster Fast & Furious franchise since 2006, and while he counts all of his Fast work among his proudest achievements,  Fast X is his favorite to date. 

Whether he's working on a theme for Rita Repulsa, Luigi or Dom Toretto, one thing can be certain: Tyler is giving it his all. "The only thing that gives me any anxiety about writing music is that I don't wanna let down anybody that created this thing that I love. I want to be associated with it. I want the movie to be great." 

In the midst of preparing for his next endeavor — an immersive live concert experience — caught up with the composer to chat about some of the most epic moments of his career. 

Passing Out Programs To His Musical Heroes At The GRAMMYs

At 12, I was a drummer on The NAMM Show, and I remember talking to a producer, either Elton John's or Metallica's, and telling them, "I want to go to the GRAMMYs. It's my dream." And they were like, "Okay, you're not really hired. But you can come, you can wear a little suit and hand out [the programs]." 

So I was there and they put me where the artists come in. I was meeting legends, one after another — Joe Satriani, Metallica, A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Q-Tip. It was crazy. I was so stoked because I was looking up at these artists, like, "Wow, that's the impossible dream." 

The funny thing is, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine — who I met at either NAMM or the GRAMMYs — now we're friends. Years later, we've reconnected and now, as Madsonik, I've recorded a song with him called "Divebomb."

Playing With Taylor Hawkins

I was in a band with Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters when I was 13, and he was a little older. We were both drummers. I introduced him to hip-hop and Depeche Mode, and he played me Rush for the first time, which changed my life. He was such a fan and, of course, he became friends with them. I met Neil [Peart] and all that. But Taylor was a friend, and we recorded together here at my last studio. We did songs together through the years. 

I remember we played in these battle of the bands [competitions], and one of the bands — right before they hit it big — was No Doubt. We were the younger guys, [and] we loved playing super-complicated things. You know, you're like 13 and you want to run before you can walk. We would just shred.

Befriending Kobe Bryant

I met him at a John Williams concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Kobe is my favorite all-time sports figure. I started scoring the same year Kobe joined the Lakers, so we have this thing, right? 

I've known John Williams for years and years. He helped me out early on and has always been supportive. And I'm backstage, and then I look over and it's Kobe Bryant! I'm like, "Oh. My. God." And I'm standing there, and he's kinda looking over at me and I go over, and he's like, "You are? Oh yeah, yeah, I know who you are!" 

Turns out, he's a huge film score guy. His daughter too. He rehabbed his Achilles to the Ironman 3 score, amongst other things. He loved Hans [Zimmer] and John Williams. 

We ended up becoming friends. We would go to lunch and dinners and talk about how he was the heir apparent to Jordan. And how we're standing on the shoulders of giants. He saw John Williams, who is my Michael Jordan. And when he saw me conduct, he noticed that I copy this same really idiosyncratic move that John Williams does when he's conducting. I didn't even realize that I did it! And Kobe is like, "That's just like me. I didn't realize I stuck my tongue out when I would be in iso," which is a Jordan thing. 

When he was coming back right after rehabbing his Achilles, Nike wanted to do an ad campaign about how he's weathered the storm and he's coming back. So Kobe's like, "Do you wanna write my theme?" So I did. This is my favorite basketball player, and we became friends, and I didn't wanna let him down.

Composing For "Yellowstone"

With ["Yellowstone" co-creator] Taylor Sheridan, whether we're working on "1883" or "Yellowstone" he sends me the script and I start writing just based on an impression. I don't write to scenes; I usually write themes and suites. 

In a sense, the music has a true actual history to it before they even film. As opposed to, I get the film, I look at it, then dive into some random theme in the middle — and it might only be 30 seconds, and you can't develop the whole theme. 

What I want is to be almost like a writer — good screenwriters do this — for even a minor character, they'll write a whole background for themselves, and they [share it] with the actors. I want all those themes and everything to almost feel like they exist outside of time and before the story happened. So I'm already making references and kind of variations on a theme at the beginning of the movie. It's not the exact way the theme ends up being developed later in the movie. It's almost like doing it ahead of time, telegraphing what it might become and then it can develop.

I always find it very important to establish those things at the very beginning. The cool thing about Taylor Sheridan, he takes those themes and plays them on set, like through the speakers while they're doing the scenes. And whenever I meet the actors, like Sam Elliott and everyone on the show, they know my music. Even the costume designer and the director of photography.

Our lives are marked by music. You get married, you have your first dance — and the music as you walk down the aisle — and you go to work out or take a run. So it's really cool that Taylor recognized that and will imbue the performances with this kind of musical soul that I was already giving it before they even shot anything. 

Reimagining "Super Mario"

When I was growing up, I played "Mario Kart" and "Donkey Kong Arcade." I had my N64. And when I was a little kid, I would get [Electronic] Gaming magazine. I remember I had cutouts of stuff, and I remember articles about Koji Kondo and Shigeru Miyamoto — the guy that invented Mario. And then, here I am, just cruising along working and it's like, "Hey Brian, we want to set up a Zoom call with Shigeru Miyamoto." And I was like, "What?!" We talked about Mario.

I told them I wanted to pay tribute at times to the original themes from the game, but do new things that could flow into the scale of what a movie is, as opposed to a game. I wanted to pay homage, but at the same time, I want to write new themes — like the music John Williams did for E.T. — that feel like what I call "built-in nostalgia," where it's new themes, but you feel like it is Mario already. They loved that idea. 

I wrote this 12-minute suite before I started the movie, and played it for them. By the end of it, they're like, "This is also Mario. And we want these themes to be the new Mario themes, along with making a nod to me — a love letter to my experience as a kid playing the game. Like it became real, you know?

There was no ego from Nintendo at all. And the fact that they came to me, way on the other side of the world. Koji Kondo, the guy that wrote all the original Mario themes, he's showing me his DVD collection on Zoom to prove that he's a fan. It was so cool.

Adding To The "Fast & The Furious" Legacy

At the very beginning, the movie's conceit was, "Hey, what's up? I'll race you for pink slips. Sick." So I did more hip-hop. Let's say 80 percent was licensed songs and 20 percent was score. Then all of a sudden Fast and Furious Five comes along, and it starts becoming a little more serious. It's about heists and family, and it's epic.

As each movie kept going, the balance started switching. The score started becoming more prominent. We're always kind of pushing forward the envelope of what you can do with the idea of orchestra with beats, and sound, and groove, and all those things that are sonic ear candy. But at that point — and now it's evolved even more with each movie — the big change is I started writing leitmotifs [themes] for a character. 

Before we knew it, the sound of Fast and the Furious was utterly its own. If you look at a chart of how I did the score, it most closely resembles something like a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings, where you have all of these different themes. It's like an old-school John Williams' score but it sounds modern. 

Now we have [Jason] Momoa, the coolest villain ever. And the new theme for him, I'm so happy with it. Typically, with a villain in a movie, people go low dirge-y, just bad-guy music. And here's the thing — Momoa's character, since this is told from his perspective, you have empathy for him, and you understand his origins and sympathize with why he became who he was. So I didn't wanna write, like, a bad guy theme. 

It's elegant. It starts in the strings, violins and the harp, but it kind of has this sneaky, sensual vibe that's very attractive. You almost admire the way he cuts you down and talks to you. And he's one of those villains that you have to admit to yourself that you like. So the theme is really elegant and kind of sophisticated, but you know something is f—ed up with this guy, in a beautiful way.

I feel that Fast X is our Empire Strikes Back. It's dark. It's intense. It's really amazing. And you have an introduction of a character that kind of takes over. He can walk in a room and suck all the air out of it, you know? So the theme had to be up to par, and a central idea — which is usually not the case in these types of films that are usually kind of relegated to commercial summer blockbusters. 

For me, the bar of difficulty is in a different universe than anything else, because people have associations and judge books by their covers. For me, it's always been the most interesting, challenging, pushing forward. And this is my favorite score of the series.

From 'Encanto' To "Euphoria" And "Grand Theft Auto V": Behind The Making Of A Great Soundtrack

Franc Moody
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 


A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."


Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.


L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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