Guitarist Watanabe reworks classic for Tokyo Jazz Festival

by Yung-hsiang Kao

Some artists never want to experience their work once it’s made. U.S. film director Woody Allen famously never watches his own films; perhaps it’s because he does not dwell on the past that he has been able to make a new feature nearly every year since 1969 while maintaining a trademark style.

Musicians, however, are not afforded the luxury of avoiding their artistic resume, mostly because the bulk of their earnings and reputations are generally tied to live performances. And during concerts, the past must be revisited.

Though a box set of 15 CDs and DVDs comprising his formative works, the “Early Years Box,” will be released Sept. 1, Kazumi Watanabe says that he doesn’t usually listen to his old records.

“I don’t have enough time to listen to my previous works,” he says with a laugh.

With a catalog just as extensive as Allen’s, Watanabe has been a force in jazz with his characteristic guitar playing since his solo debut in 1971. Voted the best jazz guitarist in an annual poll by readers of Japanese magazine Swing Journal for a whopping 32 years in a row (1976-2007), Watanabe exudes humility despite his rock star status. At this year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival, he will take audiences back in time to revisit his 1980 album “To Chi Ka” and play it anew.

The 56-year-old Watanabe, with confidently coiffed hair dyed brown and a dark blue sateen blazer, is shorter in person than he looks in photos. He takes a seat in a lounge at the offices of NHK Enterprises (one of the organizers of Tokyo Jazz) in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, his hometown, and discreetly slips a piece of fancy-looking chocolate into his mouth before speaking.

“Early Years Box,” Watanabe’s second box set (after 2004′s “Kazumi Box”), is a testament to his continuing prodigious productivity. For example, in 2009 he released two albums within a month featuring different aspects of his sound: “Acoustic Flakes,” a sort of unplugged record featuring a few originals with standards such as classics by legendary 1930s-’40s guitarist Django Reinhardt; and “Jazz Impression,” filled mostly with original compositions that allow his smooth electric guitar sound to shine.

He doesn’t only play jazz. In July he performed at Suntory Hall in Tokyo with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, playing all three movements of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” not just the well-known Adagio. Watanabe says this was a “milestone for me as a musician, not just as a guitarist or jazz guitarist.”

Watanabe’s sound has changed through the years as new technology and styles have influenced music. His albums from the 1980s have some of that era’s synthesizer flavor, while the recent albums have a spare, polished feel.

“The most important essence of jazz is improvisation, so I keep improving my improvising skills, and that’s what ‘Jazz Impression’ is all about,” he says. “I had intended to include more standards, but then I thought it could be a more personal album. I wanted to see what I could do with my own pieces.

“I just keep updating my sound,” he adds, “especially if you compare it with the ‘To Chi Ka’ album of 30 years ago.

“However, just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s always the best necessarily. Whatever I find from my past work that is still interesting I might place in my work right now.”

In “Jazz Impression,” Watanabe goes beyond just a return to his roots in jazz and excels by exploring new terrain with his own compositions.

Watanabe was hailed as a guitar prodigy when he made his debut at age 17 with the album “Infinite,” released in September 1971. He formed the all-star band Kylyn, teaming up with renowned musicians Ryuichi Sakamoto, Akiko Yano and Shuichi Murakami, among others, to record the group’s eponymous album in 1979. He also played live with Sakamoto’s Yellow Magic Orchestra. Working with such artists, the exposure and subsequent enthusiastic response from the public was a great way to enter the music industry.

However, it was “To Chi Ka” that brought Watanabe to the vanguard and revealed the depth of his talent. Recorded in New York and produced by Mike Mainieri, who also played vibraphone on the album, “To Chi Ka” comprised eight tracks, all composed by Watanabe. His guitar skills meshed alongside those of other young jazz stars such as the late saxophonist Michael Brecker and bass guitarist Marcus Miller. Whereas “Kylyn” might now sound a bit dated, the landmark “To Chi Ka” continues to hold influence on jazz-fusion music, especially in Japan.

For Tokyo Jazz 2010, Watanabe’s unit Tochika2010 featuring Tochika All Stars will bring together Miller, Mainieri and keyboardist Warren Bernhardt from the original recording sessions, with Omar Hakim on drums.

“The audience can expect pretty much the sound of ‘To Chi Ka’ from 30 years ago,” Watanabe says. “This is because my philosophy as a musician is to maintain a certain awareness of the people I work with and of the listeners. But I’m sure our reinterpretation of ‘To Chi Ka’ will hold some surprises.”

Watanabe’s group holds a prominent place on Tokyo Jazz 2010′s schedule, playing on Sept. 5, the last of the festival’s three dates, at the Tokyo International Forum. That night will feature drummer extraordinaire Han Bennink as a special opening act, along with the Joshua Redman Trio and the Jazz Crusaders (Joe Sample and Wayne Henderson with special guest Gerald Albright). Watanabe is excited about the acts but is especially looking forward to hearing the Jazz Crusaders, who play after his group and give the festival a fine finishing act.

Overall, this year’s Tokyo Jazz features one of its strongest and most varied lineups, including The Super Premium Band of Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Lenny White on the Sept. 3 opening night; Miller with the NHK Symphony Orchestra featuring singer Roberta Flack in the Sept. 4 daytime session; a Sept. 4 evening set featuring Flack and vocalist Al Jarreau; and a Women in Jazz daytime session on Sept. 5 with artists such as pianist-vocalist Chie Ayado. Besides the performances at the forum, various events will be held in the surrounding Marunouchi and Ginza districts, including Watanabe playing two shows at Yamaha Ginza on Sept. 1 and 2.

Watanabe last performed at Tokyo Jazz seven years ago. Back then, the event was held in Chofu, western Tokyo, at the open-air soccer facility Ajinomoto Stadium. Watanabe is glad the recent editions have been in the heart of Tokyo.

“A few years ago, I went to see the jazz festivals in Montreux (Switzerland), Nice (France) and Perugia (Italy), and it was great to see them held in the atmosphere of the city, representative of the place,” he says. “When I played at Tokyo Jazz in 2003 . . . it was hot and far away. Now, the event is near Tokyo Station, the Imperial Palace — a place that truly represents Tokyo.”

After 40 years of performing, composing and producing, Watanabe has a simple goal.

“I just want to convey to the audience an idea,” he says, summing it up in one simple phrase: “Guitar is beautiful.”

Kazumi Watanabe’s Tochika2010 featuring Tochika All Stars performs at Tokyo Jazz Festival on Sept. 5 at the Tokyo International Forum. For details, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com