Last week, with one last musical interlude, Shinichirō Watanabe's marvellous anime Kids on the Slope concluded its 12-episode run. Kids was something truly special -- a nostalgic, dream-like tribute to friendship, love, and the mysterious power of music.
And oh, what music!
I've already written at length about my unabashed love of this series. If anything, my feelings were amplified by the final five episodes of the season. I'm not entirely convinced that I didn't have a past/parallel life in 1966 rural Japan, so strong is my affinity for this show, its setting, its characters and its music.
Episode 7, in particular, had one of the most triumphant jazz performances I've ever seen in a TV show or movie. It was like... jazz's Rocky Moment. But even the episodes with next to no musical performances still featured a lot of music, and each one made me fall farther in love with this show.
Kids on the Slope was a love story -- in fact, it was several love stories. It wasn't just about a boy and girl. Sure, there were plenty of sparks between Kaoru and Ritsuko, Yurika and Brother Jun… but it was also (and possibly off-puttingly for some) the story of a romance between two young men, the romance at the heart of a lifelong friendship. The truest love on Kids on the Slope was between Kaoru and Sentarō, expressed via the music that coursed through their friendship.
That music, of course, was jazz. Kids on the Slope nailed the vibe, history, and feel of jazz in a way that never ceased to amaze me. Each episode was named for a classic jazz standard, and the titles, lyrics, and even the music of the tunes played an important part in each episode.
So here now, A Listener's Guide to Kids on the Slope.
Episode 1: "Moanin'"
Bobby Timmons' bluesy shuffle "Moanin'" features prominently throughout Kids on the Slope. It's the first tune that Sentarō teaches Kaoru to play, and it becomes their theme song. I love that this tune plays that role, as is a really common first piano tune for jazz players, based on the simple piano riff that runs through the tune.
"Moanin'" has a special place in my heart too, as it was the first tune that my dad (a drummer) showed me on the piano when I was a little kid. Aah, Kids on the Slope. How are you so good?
Fun Fact: The "handoff" between trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Benny Golson is a famous, much-quoted riff -- Morgan lays down a four-note lick, and Golson picks it up verbatim. Cool.
Episode 2: "Summertime"
This tune doesn't turn up in the episode (I don't think?) but it's another famous tune, particularly well known for being beginner-friendly. Composed by George Gershwin for the musical Porgy and Bess, it was made famous by Miles Davis. This performance is Gil Evans' arrangement, which is one of the most well-known (and amazing) versions of the tune.
Episode 3: "Someday My Prince Will Come"
One of the most iconic and repeated tunes in the show, "Someday My Prince Will Come" is also one of the most well-known jazz waltzes of all time. This performance by Bill Evans is one of the most well-known. It's fitting that Kaoru would be drawn to it, since he is based largely on Evans (though without the crippling drug addiction and complicated personal problems.)
Fun Fact: I'm basing this on the word of my improv teacher from college, who lived with Evans for a summer in New York. Evans was a sheet-music fiend, who would learn the original voicings and arrangements for all of the show tunes he did before reworking them into his own versions. He was a meticulous practicer, which also matches with Kaoru's more methodical approach to practice and writing.
Episode 4: "But Not For Me"
The character of Brother Jun is clearly based on trumpeter Chet Baker, who was fond of picking up a microphone and crooning the tunes he was playing on trumpet. Baker was a smart, interesting instrumentalist, but he didn't have a lot of "chops" -- he was no high-note blowing Dizzy Gillespie. So, he made up for it by singing -- and in doing so, won himself a place in jazz history.
During the scene in the jazz bar, Brother Jun sings this tune in a clear homage to Baker. And of course, not to long thereafter, Jun gets to sing his own love song.
Episode 5: "Lullaby of Birdland"
Another jazz classic, and one of the most famous vocal tunes of all time. Here's Ella singing a famous rendition.
Fun Fact: Every single jazz vocalist in the entire world has sung this song an average of 500 times. (Slight exaggeration.) (But still.)
Episode 6: "You Don't Know What Love Is"
One of my personal favourite ballads, this performance from Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus is easily my favourite. That whole record is great -- you should buy it.
Episode 7: "Now's The Time"
It's appropriate that the episode where "it all goes down" is named for Charlie Parker's famous blues tune "Now's the Time." After all… now was the time!
Charlie Parker (aka "Bird")'s alto saxophone solo on this tune is one of the most famous bebop solos of all time, a melange of his favourite licks that just about every jazz saxophonist (including yours truly) learned back in high school.
God, this episode was so insanely good.
Episode 8: "These Foolish Things"
Another standard popularly sung by Chet Baker, this title is particularly appropriate for this episode, as much of it revolves around our Chet Baker-alike Brother Jun being reminded of his time at University, and of the tragedy that befell his saxophonist friend. "These foolish things," go the lyrics, "remind me of you."
And of course, another famous version of this song was sung by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.
Episode 9: "Love Me or Leave Me"
"Love Me or Leave Me" is one of the tunes I'm less familiar with, mostly since it's primarily a vocal tune. But THIS performance by Nina Simone kills.
Episode 10: "In a Sentimental Mood"
A lovely tune by the unmatched composer Duke Ellington, and one of my favourite melodies of all time. This version, recorded on the album Ellington and Coltrane, is my favourite -- the intro, that piano part, the way that Coltrane plays the melody into his upper register… timeless. One of the great jazz recordings of all time.
Episode 11: "Left Alone"
Another tune I'm not all that familiar with, beyond having played it at a few sessions. Here's Jackie Mac playing it, and sounding damned fine.
Episode 12: "All Blues"
Also fitting that the finale would be named for another of the most famous jazz tunes of all time, this one Miles Davis' "All Blues." The episode does have its share of blues, though of course, it ain't all sadness. A fantastic finale to a great series, with some really unexpected turns.
Now, a few songs that turned up at various pots without actually having episodes named after them:
"My favourite Things"
I'm surprised that there wasn't an episode named for this famous Rogers & Hammerstein song "My favourite Things," best known from The Sound of Music. John Coltrane's dark, intense re-imagining of this tune is one of the most well-known jazz renditions of all time, and was the most well-known of the tunes he would play on the soprano saxophone. The arrangement performed later, with Ritsuko singing the melody and the instrumental taking over midway through, was particularly nice, and a great montage. I would've liked to see more development of Ritsuko as a singer, but it was still a fun sequence.
This tune makes a brief appearance in the second-to-last episode, but I was glad to hear it played -- another tune made famous by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, "Milestones" was another modal tune with a form similar to that of "So What" and "Impressions" -- sixteen bars of a single chord, then eight bars of a different chord, then eight more of the first. It continues Kids on the Slope's fixation on late-50's hard bop, and was a fun moment
We'll end with this one, which feels appropriate -- "Bag's Groove" is the tune that the Slope quartet first jams on in the basement of Tsutomu's record shop. There's not a jazz player alive who doesn't know this tune, originally written by Milt Jackson ("Bags") and recorded here by Jackson and Davis. Sentarō's drum solo in the first episode was a lot of fun, but the jam session scene was when I knew that I was 100% on board with Kids on the Slope. Little did I know that it would get even better from there.
All of the music I've posed here is available via a number of digital outlets, and the albums they were recorded on all contain a ton of other equally great tunes. I was impressed at how the tunes selected for Kids on the Slope presented such a perfect cross-section of hard-bop jazz from the 50's and 60's, and how perfectly they presented so many of my all-time favourite records.
You can (and should!) watch Kids on the Slope in its entirety for free vie Crunchyroll. You can also sign up for a Crunchyroll account, which will let you watch the episodes in HD. I signed up for the trial and was stunned at how much better the show looks in HD -- you can get a free trial, too, and if you've got the TV for it, it's worth signing up just to see the show in HD.
I'm looking forward to the day when Kids on the Slope gets an English language dub and turns up on an American network. I'm midway through my second viewing, and by then, I'm sure I'll be ready for a third.
Every miserable day is swell,
a high-speed swing surrounds us
What's this dance called? I can't stop…
This melody… is like love.