Leo Takami finds joy in simple melodies played in a straightforward manner. Though his compositions often lead somewhere unexpected, the jazz guitarist and pianist keeps his tunes as rounded and safe as kindergarten toys. Like Joe Hisaishi, the Studio Ghibli composer who is one of his clearest predecessors, Takami has forged an aesthetic that’s clear and chipper when it’s happy, curious and grounded when it’s not. His willingness to plainly state his emotional intentions without pandering or infantilizing is refreshing, as if he’s giving the listener permission to explore the complexities of feelings that once seemed easy to understand: You have no idea how interesting happiness can be. This quality made 2020’s Felis Catus and Silence a charming testimony of good cheer, and on Next Door, he deepens the emotional resonance of his music without setting it on edge.
The mood on Next Door is blue, but Takami’s indefatigable optimism makes it more of an airy azure than the deep cobalt of, say, Miles Davis. Like Pat Metheny, his guitar lines have a plainspoken eloquence and patience that makes the music feel airy and open, even at its most contemplative. He chooses his notes carefully, more concerned with sustaining or expanding emotional tone than musical possibilities. On the lengthy lead he plots through “Winter Day,” he plays like he’s reading out loud from Dickens—he’s steady, precise, letting the notes themselves convey the meaning rather than the way he’s voicing them. He shakes loose a few needles from his guitar in “Road With Cypress and Star,” but he primarily saves the big, bursting runs for his piano and organ, both of which he tends to keep farther back in the mix, as if their relative feistiness might trouble the songs. If the textural clarity of the recording makes it feel like the music you’d hear in a department store stereo demonstration, that may be on purpose: Takami seems to want to fish his audience from the relentless flow of everyday life in order to experience the simple pleasure of listening.
While Takami’s playing can be straightforward, it’s supported by subtly complex production that both supports and reframes the simplicity of the lead instruments. Like Felis Catus, the album draws equally from ECM jazz, classical minimalism, and Japanese environmental music without sounding much like any of them. Behind the opalescent drops and desert blues of “Beyond” are pulses that spread like moss in a deep forest. In “Family Tree,” a loop of faded found sound crackles behind a guitar swelling with regret. The interplay and the distance in fidelity between the elements makes the song’s sense of time feel three-dimensional, as if we’re hearing the present considering and being shaped by the past. Takami plays every instrument on the record, and he produced it himself; absent a band, these production touches are a form of interplay, and at times you can hear his leads responding to and being reshaped by the gentle urgings of their accompaniment.
In the proper opener and standout “As If Listening,” Takami’s guitar greets you with a smile, but it emerges in the wake of the Erik Satie-like piano intro “Letter.” The sadness of that brief track lingers throughout “As If Listening,” sighing in the strings and implicit in the distant shuffle of shaker and pulse of marimba. Takami draws the guitar toward the background, its bliss eventually turning into a contemplative trance. When the song stops to catch its breath in the final moments, its momentum follows the gaze of the strings skyward. The slow twinkle of piano and hum of electronics make it feel like looking up at the sky in awe. Over and over again on Next Door, Leo Takami recontextualizes the familiar, returning us to truths whose universality made them cliches in the first place. The stars don’t shine any brighter here; you’re just seeing them through clearer air.
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