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Sana Nagano's 'Smashing Humans' Evokes Punk-Jazz Ethos on Debut Album

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The album will be released March 19, 2021.

Sana Nagano's 'Smashing Humans' Evokes Punk-Jazz Ethos on Debut Album

The Brooklyn-based noise-jazz violinist Sana Nagano often finds herself at the center of the storm. As other instruments crash and careen around her, her assuredly melodic violin works to ground and stabilize the overall sound. And nowhere is this better heard than on Smashing Humans, her new quintet album coming March 19th on 577 Records. Featuring Peter Apfelbaum on sax, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Joe Hertenstein on drums, it's an LP full of gorgeous chaos and explosive energy, with Nagano controlling the flow. It's music of great power, but also balance.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Nagano moved to the U.S. in 2001, as an exchange student in Oregon. Her studies later led her to the University of Memphis and Berklee College of Music in Boston, but she has spent the last decade in New York City, working with veteran avant-jazzers like Karl Berger and Adam Rudolph and peers like violist Leonor Falcon and guitarist Harvey Valdes. As far as her time with Berger, a legendary vibraphonist and the founder of Creative Music Studio, Nagano sees it as a collaboration, not an apprenticeship.

"I like to think of him as a friend as much as I can, because whenever I think of a musician in an equal place, I think I can be a little more honest in terms of my performance and my existence," says Nagano. "And I think that's important, and I feel like that's something that maybe he appreciates as well. For me to be honest. And so I guess I try to pay attention to that."

Transparency is also at the core of Smashing Humans. One finds squealing guitar, rapidfire sax, bashing drums, and psychedelic bass in the music, but Nagano is always there to reel everyone in with calm, voice-of-reason violin. Even the album title, which doubles as the band name, is all about being real.

"It kind of means smashing our egos," explains Nagano. "I think that's what it means at the end of the day. It means that we try so hard, but then we get into our agony and just going in a circle. We wanna mean it well, but it's difficult, and we're always being questioned by our egos."

The stories behind the songs on Smashing Humans are as diverse as Nagano is sincere. "Dark Waw," the title of which is meant to evoke the word "awkward," is "a lot about feeling a little bit different from others but being able to connect with everybody." "Humans in Grey" was inspired by fantasy author Michael Ende (The Neverending Story). "Heavenly Evil Devil" is about a "trickster" who's "not really evil, but cute evil." And "The Other Seven" stems from her relationship with Berger.

"He is really into numerology, and we had this conversation talking about numbers and all that," recalls Nagano. "And he found that my number is seven. So it casually means that. Seven means to listen, to meditate. It just kind of meant well, and I liked it."

Nagano, of course, is not the only good listener in Smashing Humans. Matsuno, whose guitar is never anything less than a threat, has also worked with drummer Jim Black and saxophonist Briggan Krauss.

"He's easy to work with, and he's fun to work with," says Nagano on Matsuno. "He's fun to play with. He will add a lot of fun ideas when we're playing, but organically. And I enjoy that very much."

Hertenstein, who has also appeared with Rudolph and Berger, has also proven himself a sympathetic foil.

"A lot of the stuff I write, it's not the easiest to read," says Nagano. "But Joe will look at it. And he tries to understand what I meant. And he wouldn't mind about discussions. He doesn't play it just because he wants to sound good, he plays it because he wants to make good music. And I have the same goal. And it's not that good music is the best, but it's more about kindness and the adventurous spirit."

More than just a musician, Nagano sees herself as a positive force in the world. And as global events get crazier and crazier, she finds stability in the creative urge.

"I wanna be useful, because I think being an artist is important," says Nagano. "It is. I think every day, 'How can I contribute?' Because when I play my sound, I do my best to be honest. Try to be honest as possible. And I think that means a lot that's difficult. It's not easy. I think that attitude is important because a lot of the time, I think, 'This is a difficult time. And I'm feeling a little bit off tonight, because of what has been happening in this world. And it's hard.' I just think it's still important that we create and we exist. There's a beauty to it. That we keep creating and sharing. Because, for me, art really helped me to be where I am."


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