Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sadao Watanabe @ The Blue Note, September 8, 2008

Sadao Watanabe is one of the grand old men of Japanese jazz, so when I saw that he would give one of his increasingly infrequent performances on this side of the globe I decided it would be an event not to be missed. It was also opportune since my old friend Pekka was visiting from Helsinki and wanted to hear some good live music. So we headed to the Blue Note in West Village. Luckily we arrived early as the place was quickly getting crowded. We were still able to secure stools at the bar with a perfect view of the stage; had we arrived 15 minutes later this would not have been possible. Needless to say, as is always the case at New York jazz clubs, many in the audience were Japanese, either locals or visiting. Jazz is a major Japanese interest and famous clubs like the Blue Note are a must for many tourists from the Land of the Rising Sun. However, word of the rare performance had spread in the Big Apple music circles and the performance was soon sold out to a thoroughly mixed audience.

The 75-year-old master entered the stage quite promptly on schedule. He was in a joyful mood and thanked the sponsors of the trip, as this had allowed him to travel with his own band from Japan, as opposed to putting together a group of local musicians on the spot. Playing with his own band guaranteed the performance’s tightness.

The first number, as well as the one that followed it, were light hearted romps. Watanabe’s alto sax sound was as clear and beautiful as ever. The youthful band played the rolling funk so cheerfully, prompting Pekka to suggest that it sounded almost vacuous and that especially the guitar played by Jun Kajiwara was even too light. I had to agree. Luckily, this mood was only for the beginning. Already the third tune, a version of Dizzy’s classic Salt Peanuts, carried much more weight. Even if the piece is not known for any manner of serious-mindedness, it provided the sax man a chance to show off some serious be-bop chops.

This was followed by the lovely ballad You Should Go Now, which Watanabe interpreted wonderfully. His alto was crisp singing the melancholy melody with lyrical determination. The keyboardist Akira Onozuka, now on acoustic piano, was equally expressive in his solo demonstrating some highly original harmonies.

After this, the mood turned outright festive with tunes like the Brazilian favourite Chega de Saudade (which aptly translates into ‘end of melancholy’) boosting the rhythm section, consisting of Kiichiro Komobuchi (electric bass), Masaharu Ishikawa (drums) and N'diasse Niang (percussion), into infectious samba swing.

Around this time one Japanese customer was forcibly removed from the club by two large security guards. I did not see what caused this incident, but I had earlier paid attention to the middle aged man when he was hanging around the bar before the performance. It was not only his somewhat unusual outfit – a fedora and a leather vest on top of a tank-top – but the threatening way he was eyeing the other customers. This was the first time I had witnessed anything similar at this venue – or with Japanese customers.

Nevertheless, the show went on and the audience was growing more and more enthusiastic. To me, the high point of the evening was a tune, which Sadao Watanabe explained he had heard a young woman sing on the Indian Ocean beach in Tanzania years ago. He had approached the beautiful lady and asked about the song. He later adapted the traditional tune to this new format. He played the haunting melody with a breathy flute before turning back to his sax for the solo. The piece also highlighted the percussionist, N'diasse Niang, who was the only non-Japanese player in the band. Watanabe had originally encountered him in the National Ballet of Senegal but the man now lived in Yokohama. His solos throughout the evening received some of the most enthusiastic applause.

This was all in all a lovely performance by an old Sensei surrounded by a select group of his disciples.

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