Mammoth Ensemble Brings Cowboy Bebop's Anime Space-Jazz to Phoenix

Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno.
Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno. Yosuke Torii

Jazz and animation have been a pair for over a century. You can hear the influence of the music on animation in the medium’s early years: the ways the Fleischer brothers would punctuate their Betty Boop and Koko the Clown shorts with jazz and blues numbers, or how pioneering animation directors like Bob Clampett would base entire cartoons around their experiences hanging out with jazz musicians. There’s something about the freewheeling, loose-limbed energy of jazz that makes it a natural complement to animation.

If the two mediums were to ever get together and have a baby, the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop would be that perfect golden child.

Originally aired in 1998, Cowboy Bebop was a sci-fi anime about a band of bounty hunters trying to get by in a run-down future. It’s only 26 episodes long (which, by anime standards, is a short run), but manages to pack a dizzying amount of stylistic shifts and plot into those half-hour blocks. It combines the laid-back, hangout vibe that director Howard Hawks cultivated in films like Rio Bravo with the harsher, ice-cold professionalism that French director Jean-Pierre Melville made his calling card in heist films like Le Cercle Rouge. Cowboy Bebop is a noir, a Western, and a William Gibson-esque cyberpunk thriller all rolled into one.

The one thread that unites all these disparate influences and genres and makes Cowboy Bebop feel like a cohesive work is the jazzy soundtrack. It starts with "Tank!," the show's iconic opening theme. A hard bop with some Latin flavor, the track feels like the kind of throwback jazz number that would soundtrack a chase scene in a spy movie.

Cowboy Bebop’s music was composed by Yoko Kanno, and most of the music she wrote was performed by her band Seatbelts. Kanno is a prolific composer and arranger who’s left her mark on many other anime series, including Macross Plus, Vision of Escaflowne, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Kanno flexes her compositional muscles hard on Cowboy Bebop, filling each episode with a wide range of uptempo, jazzy numbers. Like the best scores, it’s impossible to conceive of Cowboy Bebop without its signature music: Kanno’s propulsive songs infuse each frame of the show with an extra jolt of kinetic energy.

click to enlarge Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno. - YOSUKE TORII
Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno.
Yosuke Torii
Part of what makes her music work so well is that it resonates with the themes and setting of the show. While set far in the future, the world of Cowboy Bebop is ruled by nostalgia. Bounty hunters dress up like cowboys while gangsters model themselves after 20th-century yakuza cliches. So even though the show is sci-fi, it feels like it could take place today if you subbed out the starships for cars and the planets for different cities. And Kanno’s jazz helps sell that timelessness.

While the lion’s share of the credit for the show’s music goes to Kanno and her Seatbelts, a jazz legend helped behind the scenes to give the music its authentic flavor. Legendary jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder was a part of some of the Bebop sessions. Van Gelder worked with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and dozens of other jazz greats. It’s strange to think that the same person who worked on A Love Supreme and Saxophone Colossus also helped record an anime soundtrack.

And like the best scores, Kanno’s music can stand on its own. Which is why other musical ensembles have done entire nights devoted to her music. Phoenix’s own The Mammoth Ensemble is doing a Cowboy Bebop night this month at The Nash, playing Seatbelts songs as a 14-piece jazz band. So if you ever wanted to end a night out on the town by sitting in a dimly lit club and knock back a drink while a band plays “The Real Folk Blues,” you’re in luck, space cowboy.

The Mammoth Ensemble. 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 25, at The Nash, 110 East Roosevelt Street; 602-795-0464; thenash.org. Sold out.
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Ashley Naftule