Listen closely. Listen so closely you can feel the music... maybe even taste it. Now do that in a public space with several other respectful music appreciators in a room kitted out with a superior sound system. In 2023 America, this is a radical idea, though it's been popular in Japan for about a century.

In recent months Seattle DJs Jason Justice and Justin Cayou have been gearing up to translate the concept of the jazz kissa (jazz cafe) to the Emerald City under the name Maiden Voyage—a nod to the title of legendary jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock's 1965 album. (Justice—who was part of the Sun Tzu Sound crew—is a Hancock superfan, collecting any albums that feature covers of “Maiden Voyage.”)

So far, the duo has thrown two Maiden Voyage events, both in 2022: one at the Photon Factory loft in Georgetown and another at the Grocery Studios on Beacon Hill. For these sessions, the middle-aged dudes transported their Technics SL-1210GR turntables and mixer, massive Klipsch speakers, and Schiit amps to the venues, along with meticulously curated vinyl recordings, to optimize the listening experience. The next one happens February 3 at Lo-Fi. Maiden Voyage will take over that venue's front room from 8-10 pm as part of DJ Rizoma's Global Groove monthly.

As with many creative concepts recently, the impetus for Maiden Voyage came during COVID lockdown. Justice (a technical director at an advertising company) and Cayou (a sales rep in the motorcycle industry) were investing in their hi-fi systems and intensifying their love of music in many styles. Maiden Voyage, Cayou says in an interview at his Central District pad, is a way for them to participate in jazz-cafe culture without opening a bar—which neither can afford to do right now.

“People do pop-ups of all different kinds,” Cayou says. “You see this trajectory of a food truck that gets really successful and transitions into a brick-and-mortar place. So we thought, why can't we put together a system that can get into that hi-fi world that doesn't cost a million dollars, and we would feel comfortable bringing it into different environments and sharing that concept and culture with people in Seattle?”

Justice adds, “We started tracking how different listening bars are popping up in the States and different interpretations of it. We began to think about how we can do it ourselves.”

Jason Justice

Cayou's been obsessed with jazz kissas for a while. “We're Gen Xers who grew up with our parents' hi-fi systems,” he says. “There's a nostalgia aspect for us, too. We grew up with records. A lot of my records are from my dad's collection. He had a Sansui receiver and an AR [Acoustic Research] turntable, and there was a local company called Speaker Lab that people might remember that built really cool speakers. I don't know what pushed him there, but we had a cool system in our house.

“Through CDs, you kind of lose that thread, but it's been rediscovered en masse when you look at the vinyl and hi-fi resurgences. For people our age [early 50s], nostalgia plays a big role. There are younger people who are realizing the possibilities. If there's a 20-something who's only listened to music on a Bluetooth speaker and they come and hear our system, they're going [his eyes bulge here], 'Holy shit! This is amazing!' That's why there are a lot of young people in these joints.”

Cayou recently took a trip to Japan to research traditional jazz kissas. He noticed how their dinginess contrasted with Japan's typical ultra-clean businesses. The new generation of jazz kissas are being called "music bars." He found it “surprising and cool” that many young people frequented them. “They're blown away by the sound, the fidelity. 'Wow, I didn't know music could sound like this.' That might be contributing to the popularity.”

Keen observers of the listening-bar scene in America and abroad, Justice and Cayou can't believe that Seattle lacks any such establishment. It is a mystery why a city such as Seattle, with its rich jazz history, hasn't opened a listening bar yet. They note that New York, Miami, Chicago, and LA have them and that San Diego boasts several. “One of the best in the world now is in Oakland, Bar Shiru,” Cayou says. “We definitely need to make a pilgrimage down there.”

For the test run at Photon Factory, they invited people they thought would be excited by the concept, mainly friends in their 40s and 50s. They commingled with Photon Factory's 20-something owner Erik Molano and his circle, which made for a fascinating cross-section of folks. About 50 attendees showed up.

Katie Kurtz

“There was a lot of coming and going from the listening zone, a lot of people socializing and drinking,” Cayou says. “About halfway through the night, we said, 'Everybody get together, let's do an experiment. Get yourself a drink, get comfortable. We're going to listen to this really nice pressing of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, the whole way through.' And we did it! Everybody sat and listened and it was the highlight of the night.”

“When the bass line comes in on 'Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky),' you can see everyone having a moment,” Justice recalls. “There was another part of the album where there's a peak and everyone in the room reacted at the same time. It was cool to see that happen. We have what we call 'the captain's chair,' which is in the sweet spot, and people took turns sitting there.”

“It's not a DJ event and it's not a club night,” Cayou says. “It's not like we need a lot of people [to attend]. These are smaller spaces that we envision functioning in. We're not gonna get rich. It makes me think of the concept of communal experience, communal listening—to get everyone focused on something for a little bit. It really feels good.”

Maiden Voyage will continue as a pop-up phenomenon as the crew gains more name recognition and momentum. The goal is to secure a brick-and-mortar permanent space, but that could be a ways off. The Lo-Fi gig is going to be MV's first non-invitation show. They admit that it's been somewhat of a struggle to find places to hold the event.

“That's why we're reaching out to different spots with rooms that we think would be applicable,” Cayou says. “The room can't be too big, the ceilings can't be too high,” Justice emphasizes. “You want it to sound good, but you don't want to have to rearrange an entire business. You want to plug and play. So we need to find a few places like that to partner with.” They're also looking to get sponsorships with some liquor and wine companies.

Maiden Voyage also hopes to tap some of the city's most visible selectors and record collectors to spin at their events, including Riz Rollins, Kid Hops, Larry Mizell Jr., and DJ Supreme. “We want to have themes for different events,” Justice says. “You could do something at a yoga studio that's focused around wellness and get everyone zoned in on the experience. It could be in a hotel lobby, where it can be more of an atmosphere, where people are coming and going. I'm keyed on seeing where the events take us.”

While listening bars have roots in jazz, Maiden Voyage will also expand into other genres, depending on the nature of the event. “At the first one, we had current jazz, classic jazz, electronic, and Brazilian,” Justice says. “Obviously, the event with Rizoma will have more of a global focus. We're pulling from our own collections and we're into all types of music.” Albums by Tim Maia, Osibisa, Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson, Arthur Verocai, and Jackson Conti, among many others are visible during our interview, hinting at MV's Global Groove playlist.

Jason Justice

After our Q&A proper ends, we head to Cayou's own listening room, where he nerds out on the equipment, as Grant Green's excellent 1970 LP Green Is Beautiful plays. We discuss heritage brands, including Klipsch, two of whose vintage 1983 speakers in Cayou's possession weigh about 200 pounds total. We talk about solid-state amplifiers and signal flow and how tubes work well with vintage horn speakers. We chat about various styli, Audio-Technica 95 cartridges, and audiophile turntables with quieter motor sounds, etc. etc. You would've hated it.

But Cayou's enthusiasm for the audiophile world is contagious, even if he disdains its exclusionary attitude. “The fun part of getting into the audiophile world is experimenting with different components, approaches, and sounds, how these [components] play together. At the end of the day, it's all subjective. You could want something that's warm and syrupy or crisp and analytical or something right down the middle of those extremes. You have to figure out what it is you like and build that. You can create amazing sound and not spend a million dollars. That's what we've done.”

Each Maiden Voyage event has influenced the path of the next one, so Justice and Cayou hope that somebody at the Lo-Fi event will want to link up. They have some ideas for future sessions, but don't want to jinx their chances by making them public. “Someone will eventually open up a bar in town that has this as a concept,” Justice predicts. “Every week we find a new one in America. I'm hopeful that [Maiden Voyage's popularity] picks up enough that we get to be the first ones to launch something like that here.”

Maiden Voyage will host a pop-up in Lo-Fi's front room on Fri Feb 3 from 8-10 pm, as part of DJ Rizoma's Global Groove. Follow Maiden Voyage on Instagram at @maidenvoyagehifi.