Kazumi Watanabe .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Japan has long been a fertile stomping ground for American and other Western
jazz musicians. On Thursday, we will have an opportunity to see what a couple of
contemporary Japanese jazz cats have to offer the world.
Watanabe and vocalist Minako Yoshida will perform at Tel Aviv’s Einav Center as
part of this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. The event is also being held as part
of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between
Israel and Japan.
Both Watanabe and Yoshida have been at the forefront of
jazz endeavor in Japan for many years. The 58-yearold guitarist-composer
Watanabe has been active on the scene for four decades, and Yoshida has been
plying her talent across a broad range of musical disciplines for around the
Watanabe got into jazz at age 14. “I was studying guitar, and
my teacher recommended that I listen to [jazz guitarist] Joe Pass,” he recalls.
“That was the beginning of jazz for me.”
In fact, Watanabe started his
musical education on piano which, he says, informs the way he plays and
approaches music in general. “When you think of the basic elements of the music,
like melody, harmony and rhythm, those things also come from the piano. So
having training on piano in my background is definitely a help.”
Watanabe is one of the leading exponents of jazz fusion and, naturally, he says
he feeds off a wide spectrum of influences, including blues, R&B and rock,
and takes his lead from a varied roster of jazz legends such as iconic
composer-pianist Duke Ellington and longtime Ellington collaborator
composer-pianist Billy Strayhorn, leading free jazz saxophonists Ornette Coleman
and John Coltrane and Japanese avant-garde guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, with
whom Watanabe studied. But there is also room for singer-songwriter Joni
Mitchell and 1960s rock group The Doors in Watanabe’s list of influential
Classical music also features strongly in Watanabe’s daily life. He
recently performed Joaquín Rodrigo’s wellknown guitar concerto Concierto de
. “I listen a lot to Bach, Ravel and Mozart,” he says, “and I have
started going to opera. There is a lot to learn from that.”
settling on fusion as his chosen avenue of artistic expression, Watanabe has
recorded more than 40 albums as leader and has collaborated with musicians from
numerous areas of the jazz and world music, such as guitarists Richard Bona,
Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, free jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman, trumpeter Randy Brecker, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Lenny
It makes for impressive reading.
Despite devoting most of
his efforts to perfecting his Western musical skills, Watanabe says he feeds off
his own cultural roots and incorporates Japanese elements and musical forms in
his work. “I focus on the spirit of traditional Japanese music and on things
like space or fuzziness which are unique to Japanese music. I try to utilize
those things in the way I play melody in jazz.”
Watanabe may very well
feel at home when he gets here and has accumulated some experience in music from
this part of the world.
“I love Middle Eastern music. I play the oud, and
I recently wrote music for a belly dance production,” he explains, adding that
he is hoping to hook up with one of the top Israeli participants in next week’s
festival. “I would love to play with [New Yorkresident bassist-oud player] Omar
Avital. He is a wonderful artist.”
Watanabe says he is also delighted to
share the stage with Yoshida. “I was a fan of hers for many years, and we have
been working together for seven years.”
The two first got together when
Yoshida guested at Watanabe’s weekly slots at the well-known Pit In music venue
in Tokyo and soon found they shared a common approach to jazz.
enjoy creating spontaneously,” he says.
“We like to create music in a way
that it doesn’t just get to be a song but a creation that comes up in the
On Thursday, Watanabe and Yoshida will offer the Einav Center
audience a wide-ranging mix of material, including cuts from their 2008 Nowadays
album, as well as drawing on pop numbers and traditional Japanese music.