Written by Gabriel Serrano Denis
If ever there was an anime soundtrack that deserved a live orchestra treatment, few would disagree that Cowboy Bebop carries that weight. Presented by The Town Hall and Crunchyroll as a celebration of Cowboy Bebop‘s 25 years, the Times Square venue was host to The Sinfonietta’s live interpretation of the anime’s iconic score on November 16th. The Sinfonietta, an all-women and majority women-of-color orchestra led by Macy Schmidt, performed the score in tandem with some of the best episodes from the series playing on a large screen, jumping in when it kicked into high gear for the jazzy action sequences, or for softer moments of western-tinged slide guitar as the Bebop glides through space. It was a spectacle befitting the momentous occasion as Bebop fans were not only treated to a perfectly executed interpretation of the well-loved score, but also an impressively synced performance that allowed a new and rich appreciation of the anime’s unique sound and its strategic silences.
An anime so intrinsically linked with cinematic and musical language, Cowboy Bebop relies heavily on mood and ambience. It might be the coolest anime ever produced thanks to its slick visuals and blues and jazz tinged jams. As such, a live orchestra performance of this score is no easy feat, much less timed to the actual cues from the show. The Sinfonietta, however, were as ready to jam as Spike, Jet, Ed, and Faye. Kicking things off with “Session #1: Asteroid Blues”, the crowd was treated immediately to the sounds of “TANK!”, the classic opening theme. With the blast of the horns and quick bump of the bass, things got rowdy quickly in the audience which, at the behest of The Town Hall, was more than appropriate.
The band had every beat and lick on point, sending the audience immediately into the futuristic world of Cowboy Bebop, where mysterious bounty hunters scrape by in space on the lookout for the next big score. Watching the episodes in this context truly made for an unforgettable experience, as the music’s presence was much more potent than ever before and its purpose felt even when the band wasn’t playing.
Cowboy Bebop is famous for its cool vibes as much as its storytelling, and this is what the band accentuated during their performance. Seeing guitarist Ann Klein seamlessly switch from slide guitar to electric guitar between performances, the melding of genres and styles perfected by creator Shinichiro Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno came into full fruition. The neo-noir and western influences came to life in front of us, with conductor Macy Schmidt committed to timing the ebb and flow of Bebop’s story with her players. With this expert playing and timing, Watanabe’s and Kanno’s original intentions came to the surface. In “Asteroid Blues” as in “Session #5: Ballad of Fallen Angels”, the prevailing mood is relaxed and introspective, with the solo harmonica (beautifully played by Pearl Rhein) and twangy guitars doing a lot of heavy lifting in the more quiet moments before explosions of action give way to equally intense blues explosions driven by drummer Emma Ford and percussionist Yuri Yamiashita. This sort of quiet/loud/quiet structure is the essence of Cowboy Bebop‘s storytelling, and The Sinfonietta made sure to hit upon this intention with brilliant execution.
“Ballad of Fallen Angels” also brought with it the amazing choir performances from Sean Holland and Jillian Willis, the latter for the now classic track “Rain”. A sublime scene accompanied perfectly by the band, it was another moment where this anniversary performance was validated. Rounded out by choir ensemble Hortensia Gooding, Alexandra Olsson and Sofie Zamchick, the epic and emotional confrontation between Spike and Vicious went to great new heights and brought the goods with another fantastic solo performance from guitarist Ann Klein. Soloist Yuko Kawasaki finished the first half of the night with a soulful rendition of “The Real Folk Blues”, once again sending the crowd into a frenzy as the Spikes and Fayes in the room sang along. It was a proper way to leave the audience hungry for more, and unprepared for what came next.
In a surprise that left The Town Hall shaking, Artistic Director Melay Araya brought onto the stage composer and instrumentalist Yoko Kanno, the artist responsible for the music being performed that night. Kanno thanked the audience for keeping the Cowboy Bebop legacy alive, and was happy to see how deep the love for the show runs. In her speech, she lauded The Sinfonietta and its all-women composition, while also highlighting that the score was mostly recorded in New York, thus bringing the musical history of the anime full circle that night. She mentioned that the writer of the show was a woman as well, the late Keiko Kobumoto.
“Women made Cowboy Bebop cool”, Kanno said, before exiting and leaving the band to play through the final two “Sessions” of the show. It was a heartbreaking and somber ending, with the band hitting all the right notes for the denouement of Spike and his crew. Macy Schmidt wanted to leave on a much more exciting note, and led the band in performing “TANK!” once again, this time the full version. A powerhouse performance that served as a final showcase for the musical prowess of the whole band, the night ended with a bang. If women made Cowboy Bebop cool when it was being made, The Sinfonietta’s performance at The Town Hall cemented and pushed forward that legacy.
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