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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012

For jazz fans in Japan, 2012 marked the arrival of a few new divas and some great gigs


By SEAN SMITH
Special to The Japan Times

For a genre that critics and musicians have been declaring dead for more than half a century, each year nevertheless sees new artists dipping their toes in the vast ocean that is jazz.

Some decide to re-trace and re-interpret well-established routes, others choose to follow the prevailing winds of fashion, while a daring few head off into uncharted waters looking to push forward the boundaries of the music even further by crossing over with other genres.

Pianist Ai Kuwabara made a splash with her self-produced album "From Here To There" with her Trio Project via her website in the spring. Word started to get around of a new talent in the making, and in the autumn the album was given a full nationwide release through EWE Records. The virtuosic and energetic performance is somewhat reminiscent of U.S.-based pianist Hiromi, though Kuwabara clearly has her own sound and is an accomplished composer who is most certainly on an upward career trajectory.

Another new name to keep an eye on is Miho Hazama. The classically trained pianist and composer went to New York to study jazz composition resulting in her astonishingly original debut "Journey To Journey." Orchestral jazz may not be a mainstream genre, but this album was a breath of fresh air with the potential to appeal to listeners beyond the jazz idiom.

Purists may continue to dismiss it as not being the real deal, but there's no denying that Japan has produced some of the world's leading club-jazz acts over the past 15 years or so, and doubtless there will be more new acts emerging from this rich pool of musicians in the next couple of years.

After playing on the club-jazz circuit for a number of years, the five-piece Jazz Collective finally released their self-titled debut album to great acclaim. The stylish blend of jazz, funk, Brazilian and club grooves was a winning mix that recalled the best of fusion dance sounds and was picked up by DJs both in Japan and overseas.

Moving from dance to a kind of jazz-meets-postrock sound, another of this year's notable debuts came from the piano trio Fox Capture Plan. Their mini-album "Flexible" introduced the band's sound with seven tracks (including a Bjork cover) that featured catchy piano riffs over postrock-style drums.

By contrast, I Three referenced the past on their self-titled debut, both in terms of the music and their fashion. Dressed in sharp suits, the piano trio have dubbed their music "heel jazz" with a set of dramatic tunes that conjure up images of black-and-white gangster movies of the 1940s and '50s, yet the music somehow retains a contemporary edge with a wide variety of influences.

On the live front, jazz fans were spoiled for choice in 2012, with the depth of their wallets being the only limitation to what they could enjoy, though two moments in particular still stand out. Back in February, Finnish outfit The Five Corners Quintet played six sellout shows over three nights at The Blue Note in Tokyo's Aoyama neighborhood. After delighting fans around the world for the best part of a decade with a swinging sound that hark back to the golden era of the '50s and '60s, the five-piece have decided to call it a day with Tokyo fans being lucky enough to witness their last performance.

In late September there was also the rare chance to catch veteran saxophonist Carlos Garnett at the Tokyo Crossover Jazz Festival playing a set of his classic tunes from the '70s. No longer in the best of health, Garnett was visibly moved by the rapturous reception he received.

With some promising debutantes joining the jazz pool in 2012 in addition to some fine performances from the older hands, fans can sail into 2013 confident that there will be plenty of delights to be discovered or revisited on the voyage.

Beginning on Jan. 10, 2013, Sean Smith will start writing a column about jazz on the second week of every month for The Japan Times Music page.

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