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Friday, March 17, 2006

LATIN JAZZ IN TOKYO

Heating up dance floors

The Latin boom continues unabated in Tokyo. There are Latin dance lessons aplenty, spicy eateries and specialty cigar and rum bars; the latest bands from Cuba tour to full houses; and a Japanese-language free magazine, Salsa 120%, lists all things Latin. No longer just a fad, Latin culture has become an integral part of the city's life.

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A resident of Tokyo since 1997, Cuban trumpeter Luis Valle (left) has formed two of the most authentic-sounding Latin jazz groups in the city.

Ever since Jelly Roll Morton's 1920s comment that jazz always needed a "Spanish tinge," Latin music has been an important influence in the world of jazz. Since the early '50s, when Cuban music was at its height, Latin music was always a way of breaking up an evening of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie's blending of bop and Cuban clave established the genre. In each generation since, jazz musicians, tired of orthodox four-beat rhythms, have switched over to the dance-oriented, complex rhythms of Latin jazz.

In Tokyo, many formerly straight jazz groups have taken up Latin jazz exclusively, their intricate rhythms and fiery solos packing clubs on a regular basis. Recently, too, they have blended jazz improvisation and Afro-Cuban drumming with increased confidence. Dedicated largely to an acoustic sound, Tokyo musicians have started to write their own compositions, arrange the music in innovative ways and crank up the musical heat.

Latin jazz in Tokyo is now much more than just a tinge, and among the many now riding along to its rhythms, the devoted groups and musicians featured below stand out either by leading their own bands or doing that one night and jamming in the rhythm or horn section of a friend's band the next.

Bando Caliente

Bassist Getao Takahashi forms the backbone of several Latin groups. As bassist, occasional singer, producer, arranger and general live wire, Takahashi's presence is the seal of approval for any group. It's a rare night when he isn't playing.

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Band leader/pianist Katsunori Fukay and vocalist Alisa Sunaga are at the forefront of Tokyo's Latin jazz boom.
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One of the many bands Takahashi plays in is Banda Caliente. Leader and pianist Katsunori Fukay explains Latin music's popularity this way: "Japanese love matsuri [festivals], and Latin music can be enjoyed right away without having to understand all the complexity." His nine-piece Banda Caliente and the 16-piece (or more) Banda Caliente Grande never play to an empty house, nor does Fukay sit down for long. "Latin jazz is dance music, so when I stand up I can make the music more natural," he explains with a laugh. "Piano is a percussion instrument, after all."

Fukay knows how to write, arrange and pack the stand with the best players in the city, like flutist Shinpei Inoue and, of course, bassist Takahashi. With a mix of fast-tempo numbers and graceful ballads (one of which had a fan crying at a show last fall), Fukay's Latin music is more complex than it sounds.

"Each of the patterns individually is not so difficult, but putting the five or six patterns all together is hard, but that's what makes it so fun," he explains.

Obatala

Though Latin jazz is usually acoustic music, one group has started branching out. Until several years ago, Hideaki Nakaji was sideman and soloist with Fukay's other band, the well-known Orquesta de la Luz. But Nakaji heard Latin in his own way and wanted to explore a tighter ensemble sound with electric guitar and two keyboards. So he formed Obatala several years ago to showcase his compositions, virtuoso soloing and a more electric sound. His second album, "Conquistador," released last year, layered electric instruments over tight polyrhythms without losing the essence of Latin jazz -- the rhythm. The combination of energy and a broad palette of sounds plays as well live as it does in the studio.

Takahito "Mohican" Seki

Like many jazz converts, Takahito "Mohican" Seki found Latin music more complex and interesting than the standard four-beat of jazz. "I became fascinated with the multiple rhythms of Latin music. It's faster and much more fun," he said. Devoting himself to Latin after joining a friend's band 20-some years ago, Mohican now leads one of the most intense Latin bands in Tokyo. Taking his nickname from his haircut, Mohican's muscular piano playing drives his group on bop-like solos over quick chord changes.

"In Latin jazz, you always have to balance out the melodies and rhythms, especially while soloing," he noted. Mohican's dual nature -- full-on strength and serene sensitivity -- can be heard on his two albums and will likely feature, too, on his third when it comes out this summer.

Luis Valle

Cuban trumpeter Luis Valle has formed two of the most authentic groups. Born in Cuba to a family of musicians, Valle has made Tokyo his home since 1997. When he first came, he joined many of the city's straight-ahead big bands. While welcome as a full-force trumpeter who could hit those way-high notes, he had trouble reading the charts. In Cuba, most musicians learn by listening and playing, not by reading scores.

Eventually, though, Valle gathered musicians who could play the native clave rhythms from Cuba. He formed two bands of his own, one geared toward improvising (AfroQbamigos) and one toward the dance floor (Tropicante).

"I started with Latin jazz, but people like to dance, even if they are shy at first," he said. His Tropicante shows start with a free dance lesson for the uninitiated. Valle is a classic leader who knows how to layer sharp horn lines over brawny rhythms, but he has a lot of support from his band members. "Ten years ago, when I came here, I heard a lot of pretty good bands," he said, "but since then the scene has exploded and the number of great musicians is just increasing more and more."

For his forthcoming album, he plans on expanding his band with marimba, violin and traditional Latin instruments that were rarely heard in Japan until a few years ago.

Alisa Sunaga

While many groups relegate vocals to background choruses, young singer Alisa Sunaga puts vocals right in the center. She grew up in Japan hearing Latin music. "My father was percussionist and my mother a vocalist, so when I was small, they took me to their live shows many, many times," she said. A petite figure on stage, Sunaga's singing avoids the cute approach. Rather, her vocal tone is as intense as bebop saxophone -- sharp, direct and fluid.

"The freshness comes from maintaining tension and concentration together. That's the most difficult thing," she said.

Her album of last year, "Son de Alisa," was produced by the ubiquitous Takahashi, who also played bass, and included her father on percussion. A backing band drawn from the best Latin bands in Tokyo, including Fukay and Nakaji, form the backdrop to her center-stage vocals.

Clearly, Latin jazz is already well into its second generation.

For more information and upcoming live schedules, please visit these Web sites:
- Getao Takahashi
- Katsunori Fukay
- Hideaki Nakaji
- Takahito "Mohican" Seki
- Luis Valle
- Arisa Sunaga
- Salsa in Japan

Michael Pronko can be reached at jazznicity@yahoo.com


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