The Boundary Pusher: Shigeto 


Zachary "Shigeto" Saginaw grew up in Ann Arbor. The 32-year-old is soft-spoken and polite. He's also a monster musician; you have to see him perform if you've not. Put simply, he makes instrumental music using acoustic and electronic instruments, taking influences from jazz, hip-hop and, other genres.

His first instrument was the drums, and now he plays an array of electronic and percussive instruments.

"My keys-playing really didn't come out as much until I started producing electronic music," Shigeto says. "In a way, it forced me to do more with melody and gave me the time to experiment: I'm just trying to learn more every day."

He records and performs under the name Shigeto, which was his grandfather's name, as a tribute to the Japanese side of his family tree. Shigeto also means "to grow bigger," which makes sense when you learn that he was born prematurely; he weighed less than a pound at birth.

Shigeto's mentor was a guy named Vincent York, a jazz musician — "mainly an alto sax player but well versed in all woodwinds," he says. "He saved me from flunking out of high school — took me under his wing and I got math credit for music theory, and then history credit for jazz history, and so on. He showed me how to play based on feeling and ear. I wouldn't be here without him. My first performance with a live band, playing Shigeto songs at the Detroit Symphony, featured him. It was an honor to have him there, years later, playing my tunes."

As a result of those years in high school playing and studying jazz, there's an interesting tension between structure and improvisation that you don't find in much contemporary electronic stuff.

"I have a general structure I like to have in every set," Shigeto says. "Certain transitions that I know work, certain high and low points. I improvise inside of that structure, much like soloing over jazz changes, [playing] your own thing but within the structure of the tune." A current extension of his jazz background is a stint playing with the renowned New York-based trumpeter Dave Douglas, with whom he's about to tour the U.S.

When we talked to him, he'd just returned from Budapest and was on his way to San Francisco soon. About half his year was spent on the road.

"Planes, trains, and hotel rooms have become my second home," he says.

Shigeto has a concrete bunker of a practice, recording, and living space in Rivertown, but he and his brother, also a musician, are in the process of moving the studio to Hamtramck. It's just the next step for a guy who's found his footing.

"I was nervous at first about being accepted — nervous that people would think I was trying to jump on the Detroit bandwagon or something," Shigeto says. "I was wrong. I've felt very welcomed here and feel like I'm becoming more and more a part of the fabric."

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