Japanese fusion

Veteran guitarist Kazumi Watanabe and vocalist Minako Yoshida take to the stage at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival.

Kazumi Watanabe  (photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
Guitarist Kazumi 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 same time.
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.”
Today, 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 acts.
Classical music also features strongly in Watanabe’s daily life. He recently performed Joaquín Rodrigo’s wellknown guitar concerto Concierto de Aranjuez. “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.”
Since 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 White.
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.
“We both 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 moment.”
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.