The always pleasant Square Enix Jazz series, overseen and (largely) performed by skilled jazz brass duo Eijiro Nakagawa and Ryu Kawamura, is back with a timely addition to the group. The first volume covered titles from the Final Fantasy series, Volume 2 branched out into the entire Square Enix catalogue with some surprising selections, and this time, a single game gets the meticulous jazz treatment. Just in time for the first installment of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s a jazz album focused entirely on the adventures of Cloud and company. Does this album provide the moody atmosphere you’d expect to find while spending extra time in Midgar? How do you translate some of FFVII’s more emotional moments into jazz? Does the album branch out from the other entries in the Square Enix Jazz series or play it safe? To answer some of these questions and more, let’s look at how this new offering measures up as a Final Fantasy album, as an entry in the Square Enix Jazz series, and as jazz music in general.
Square Enix has a long history of producing and releasing music, whether it’s original soundtracks or arrange albums. They’ve had time to develop their process and quality standards, musically speaking, and this album follows that trend. The Square Enix Jazz series can sit proudly among any recent Final Fantasy piano arrangement album, or even Distant Worlds, and the FFVII collection firmly upholds that standard. Each track feels like it’s been crafted with individual attention, and the album comes off as extremely polished. Performances are also high caliber, whether the musicians are improvising or indulging in the many little refrains that make the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack memorable. “On Our Way” is a good example of both of these things happening in the same song.
Where this series, and the FFVII album itself, surpasses other Final Fantasy albums is in its interpretations of extremely recognizable pieces that somehow do not feel overused or tired. This feat is accomplished through more than simply adding musical interludes or improvisation. In many cases, these songs have been deconstructed into recognizable bite-sized components and then built back up into something identifiable as proper songs, but with new backgrounds, progression, and sometimes an entirely new tonal feel.
“One-Winged Angel” and “Aerith’s Theme” are staples in countless Final Fantasy collections, but they’re also songs that don’t necessarily lend themselves easily to a jazz sound or interpretation. Fortunately, the arrangements on this album do not attempt to capture the standard tone for these songs. Instead, they lean heavily into jazz conventions to offer a scrambled yet recognizable “One-Winged Angel” that is all jazz brass before the emphatic SEPHIROTH lyric, and an “Aerith’s Theme” so smooth it belongs on the Weather Channel in the ’90s. This is definitely something new, but a listener’s enjoyment of these particular tracks will be contingent on their expectations and whether they’re okay with versions that don’t carry quite the same tone as the originals. In my mind, these selections are exceedingly successful on a musical level; making versions of these hallowed tunes that deviate so much yet can still call themselves “One-Winged Angel” and “Aerith’s Theme” would not have been possible without a generous amount of technical prowess in arrangement and performance.
Square Enix Jazz -Final Fantasy VII- has a more consistent sound than the previous two Square Enix Jazz albums, which is basically reflective of the sharp focus on a single game and of Final Fantasy VII’s original soundtrack. The FFVII OST is largely atmospheric, with some memorable melodies for specific locations and events. The jazz version follows suit in two major ways that distinguish it from its brethren: it keeps the same or very similar instrumentation between tracks, and the improvisation tends to be more atmospheric and less melodic. You won’t find any violin or vocals this time around, and most of the album has the same setup of sax, trombone, bass, piano, guitar, and drums. The exceptions are the piano version of “Cait Sith’s Theme,” which stands out more due to the unique instrumentation, and the rock guitar version of “Cosmo Canyon.”
The more atmospheric tracks, such as “Tifa’s Theme” and “JENOVA,” almost feel designed for ambient jazz improvisation, with some slight variety in results depending on the song. Sometimes, you feel like you’re walking the streets of Midgar in the moonlight, looking for a café after a performance of LOVELESS. Yet, there are times within and between songs where it feels easy to get lost without any sort of melodic guidance. Fortunately, these moments never seem to last long, and it makes the return to the familiar strains feel almost like a relief. And above all, it’s worth noting that this is not something that happened nearly so often in the previous two installments of Square Enix Jazz.
So, independent of its RPG roots, how does Square Enix Jazz -Final Fantasy VII- fare as a jazz album? Well, it just so happens that I’ve been listening to jazz since I was very young — really, I asked my elementary school teacher about Dizzy Gillespie — and I enlisted some help from the one who introduced me to the genre, my father, to discuss this important point. We both agreed that when you’re talking about jazz, there are two main types that come to mind: the more interactive live performances with spontaneous improvisation and intense interaction between performers, and more poised recorded versions of songs that have become the standard to some degree and function well as background music. Square Enix Jazz -Final Fantasy VII- fits amazingly into that latter category, and the superlative performances and mastering certainly help, creating a seamless, easy listening experience. (Though if you’re looking more for that first category of jazz, it may be a little too perfect.)
After sampling the album, my father and I also agreed that there is a good range of tracks in terms of mood and pace, and that the variety of jazz styles they manage to pull off with mostly trombone and sax is very impressive. Personally, I’m floored at the incorporation of rock guitar in “Cosmo Canyon” and how it makes the tune sound noble, rather than jarring or out of place with the smoother jazz from other songs. My father mentioned that he is going to make the tracks he sampled part of his collection, which speaks to the quality of this album more than any mere words.
As far as particular songs, the Turks won the day in his eyes because the style of “Shinra, Inc.” reminded him of the work jazz great Miles Davis did with a pianist named Bill Evans in the 1950s. Do yourselves a favor and listen to Kind of Blue to give your ears a treat and get the full context. Kind of Blue is widely considered one of the great jazz albums, so approximating that in any way, even with one song, is a very positive thing.
Overall, this third installment of Square Enix Jazz functions as a good jazz album with some exceptional performances and arrangements, and it is officially Jazz Dad Approved. It will definitely tide RPG fans over until the official soundtrack for the remake comes out, and there may even be a small subset of jazzy FFVII fans that will prefer this album to the rather daunting eight-disc official OST.