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Friday, Aug. 25, 2006


Hot slabs of jazz

Three festivals take over Kanto

While summer rock festivals are as numerous as fireworks, outdoor jazz concerts have recently become as rare as a non-humid day. Just five years ago, Japan had so many jazz festivals all over the country that musicians had trouble making the tightly scheduled gigs. Then, sadly, economics caught up, distance and weather took their toll, and most jazz fests stopped what had always been, basically, a labor of love.

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Tokyo Jazz brings Chick Corea (above) and Hank Jones (bottom)
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Fortunately a few survived. The next two weekends, three of the best still-thriving events, each with its own distinctive character, will offer a wide range of music in full festival style. Tokyo Jazz brings in big-name foreign bands and world music. Yokohama Honmoku Jazz Festival throws a delightful outdoor party and Bay Side Jazz Chiba Jazz Street presents the finest of Tokyo's jazz scene in intimate surroundings.

Tokyo Jazz, with big names, sponsors and high production values, has taken five years to find the right balance. The original soccer stadium, where temperatures soared and the sound system echoed, has been traded in for swanker surroundings in the International Forum. At the Forum, you can hear the nuance of the music, sit on something other than flimsy lawn chairs, and it is an easy walk to food and drink.

The number and range of performers are better then ever. Headlining this year's show is Chick Corea, replacing Herbie Hancock as musical director. Hancock helped start the festival in 2002, but he hands the baton over to Corea, who will perform with his own groups, help arrange the shows, and hopefully sit in with everyone.

That should be easy, as Corea has always seemed to be many musicians rolled into one. Since the 1960s, he has created an incredible range of music: electric fusion (with Return to Forever in the '70s and Elektric Band since the '80s), chamber jazz (duets with Gary Burton and Hancock), acoustic avant-garde (Circle) and straight-ahead (Akoustic Trio).

Just as important is Corea's depth. A prolific composer, each of his many works has a dedication to innovation and musicianship that makes them greatly loved by fans and fellow musicians alike.

Corea will not be the only pianist on stage. The masterful Hank Jones, older brother of Elvin, John Coltrane's drummer, and Thad, a composer and big band leader, will be showing how the best pianists age wonderfully. At 88, his control and energy are steeped in the past, but sound as up-to-date as younger pianists. He will be playing with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Omar Hakim (whose combined ages hardly add up to his).

Setting the stage for further keyboard contrasts will be Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara, whose recordings have become popular here and in the United States, and prodigy Austin Peralta, who at 15 has already established himself with two years of international performing. These four will make up the first evening's "Piano Night."

Jazz was famously called "the sound of surprise," and the second evening, entitled "Encounters," will offer interesting and unpredictable match-ups of styles, ages and instruments. Bassist Marcus Miller and vocalist/keyboardist Frank McComb will link up for a mix of blues, pop, funk and jazz. Corea will square off with Uehara for piano duets sure to offer a beguiling contrast in approaches to the keyboard. Then, Jones will bring on Japan's most famous jazz player, Sadao Watanabe, for a straight ahead quartet.

Brazilian and Cuban music have long overlapped with jazz, sharing improvisation, complex rhythms and a dedication to performance. Brazilian singer-guitarist Joyce has performed in Tokyo about once a year, always to an enthusiastic crowd. The relaxed delicacy of her music stands in contrast to Los Van Van, one of Cuba's most popular bands, who take time for soloing, but punch it up with dance rhythms. Finally, special favorites spicing up the line-up are Shibusa Shirazu (watch out for the naked butoh dancers!) and the pyrotechnics of Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, two guitarists' guitarists.

"Tokyo Jazz" is being held Sept. 2-3 at the Tokyo International Forum, a short walk from Yurakucho and Tokyo stations. Tickets 16,000 yen. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.tokyo-jazz.com

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The Yokohama Honmoku Jazz Festival, in its 26th year one of Japan's longest-running festivals, has a tradition of showing not only the best but also the most fun jazz around. This year finds the seven-hour show packed with hyphens: Latin-jazz, funk-jazz, nu-jazz, ska-funk-jazz and anime-jazz.

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Bayside Jazz 2006 Chiba (above) and Honmoku Jazz Festival (bottom) show off local talent. MICHAEL PRONKO PHOTOS
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Each of the bands for the festival has their own following and excellent recordings. Nakaji Hideaki's Obatala is a tight Latin jazz unit that mixes electric guitar and keyboards with the purity of authentic Latin rhythms. Ken Ota's Swingroove, which just released a CD this year, is a funky outfit that, obviously, both swings and grooves. The bop-meets-jam band feel gives funky drummer Kalta plenty of space to play while Ota's sax improvises long, flowing lines of melody. Also with a new CD out this year is SFKUaNK!! Their sound welds together explosive fusion-like funk with tight horn compositions. Joining them will be the Black Bottom Brass Band, local masters of the New Orleans tradition of all brass bands.

Also on the bill will be the a cappella group, Suite Voice. These four women have released two recordings of standards given a lovely vocal workout. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 13-piece all-female Tokyo Brass Style punches out contemporary big band jazz. Bringing in anime background stories, these musicians have a wild, unabashed style that has to be heard and seen to be believed. And finally, Vagabond Suzuki has been playing funk and free jazz for the longest of anyone at the festival. Joined by special guest saxophonist Akira Sakata, they will show the youngsters how it's done.

"Yokohama Honmoku Jazz Festival" is on Aug. 27 from noon at Honmoku Shimin Park, a short bus ride from Negishi or Motomachi-Chukagai stations. Advance tickets 3,500 yen, 4,500 yen at the door. For more information call (045) 224-8135 or visit www.honmoku-jazz.com

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Bayside Jazz 2006 Chiba Jazz Street will have an entirely different vibe from either Tokyo Jazz or the Honmoku Festival. Conceived as a walk from club to club, the festival will offer 13 bands each of two days, all close by Chiba station. Now in its 9th year, the Jazz Street idea was borrowed from Yokohama's annual Jazz Promenade (which of course borrowed it from New York's famed 52nd Street, where in the '50s jazz clubs lined the street).

One ticket gets you into any of the close-by venues, and set times are around 40 minutes each, perfect to wander, sit in and listen, and wander off again to hear more. Except for the Chiba Cultural Center Hall, the venues cannot fit large bands, which makes them perfect for seeing the duos, trios and quartets up close. With small groups in cozy places, it's easy to hear the fine phrasing and intense interaction that makes jazz so special.

This year, the Jazz Street committee went out of its way to choose the cream of Tokyo's jazz world. All play regularly in Tokyo's clubs, and most have recent CDs. (Pick one up as they are often hard to find in Japan's messy distribution system). Highly recommended are the great compositions and pristine modern bop of saxophonist Tada Seiji's The Most. Drummer Yoshihito Eto's fresh rhythmic voice has propelled many bands, and the versatility of pianist Yutaka Shiina is always a pleasure to hear.

Also recommended are bassist Daiki Yasukawa, saxman Tetsuya Satoh and guitarist Tomoya Hara. These three are first-call regulars in many jazz groups, but will lead their own sets here. It's impossible to catch all 30 of the groups, but if one style doesn't grab you, the next band is only a short walk away.

"Jazz Street" is on Sept. 2-3, 3 p.m.-9 p.m. near Chiba Station. Advance tickets are two for 7,000 yen, one for 5,000 yen at the door. For more information call (043) 221-2411 or visit www.f-cp.jp

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