Ozone plugs hole left by Coleman at Tokyo Jazz Festival

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Improvisation has long been a key part of the jazz musician’s repertoire, and the organizers of last weekend’s Tokyo Jazz Festival (TJF) found themselves having to do some of their own improvising at the eleventh hour when news came through that headline act Ornette Coleman was unable to fly due to poor health.

In his place, the trio of Makoto Ozone on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums stepped in at short notice to play a second set. They were joined by a number of other musicians drawn in from the festival’s lineup to play a special session of Coleman tunes to an appreciative audience.

Despite Coleman’s absence, there was plenty for the weekend’s thousands of visitors to enjoy over the course of the festival, with the main action split between the International Forum Hall, the Cotton Club and some free open-air sets outside in the Plaza in the capital’s central Yurakucho district.

The festival opened on Friday afternoon at the Cotton Club with club-jazz trio JiLL-Decoy association. Playing with a full band including guest appearances from Yusuke Hirado and Takahiro “Matzz” Matsuoka from quasimode, they worked through a jazz-pop-soul crossover set to an enthusiastic crowd. The highlight of the show was a cover of A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” deftly reinterpreted in jazz-waltz style.

Out in the Plaza in the evening, kicking off the International Showcase at this year’s festival was France-based composer and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, making his first appearance in Japan. Mixing jazz-rock fusion with elements of hard rock and music from Lebanon, his country of birth, Maalouf’s music was varied, fresh and exciting — and well received.

On Saturday night he played again, this time at the Cotton Club for an hourlong set, with the music sounding even more intense in a club setting. On the evidence of these two shows, Maalouf will no doubt be back in Japan again in the not too distant future.

Also making a big splash in their first appearance at TJF was Norway’s Jaga Jazzist. The nine-piece band virtually blew the roof off the Cotton Club on Friday night, squeezed onto a stage crammed with a wide selection of instruments including vibes, trombone, sax, bass clarinet, slide guitar, tuba and more, not to mention an array of electronics. These instruments all blended perfectly to create a mind-blowing sound.

The swish surroundings of an upmarket jazz club was a very different setting from their last appearance in Japan at 2010′s Fuji Rock Festival, but Jaga Jazzist approached the gig with no less energy. Playing a selection of tracks from their latest album, “One-Armed Bandit” (the title track, “Bananfluer Overalt” and “Music! Dance! Drama!” went down particularly well) along with older tunes, some of the band’s multi-instrumentalists were making more than one instrument change in the course of a single number.

Playing a second show in the Plaza on Saturday evening, they drew by far the biggest crowd of the weekend to the open-air stage.

Earlier on Saturday afternoon, another band that got a rousing reception was Bruut! from the Netherlands, making their first appearance in Japan. Taking to the stage in the sweltering heat dressed in sharp black suits, it was clear from the opening bars of their first tune, that they were going to go down well, with murmurs of “kakoii” (“cool”) echoing through the crowd. The swinging soul-jazz and boogaloo-influenced sax-and-organ grooves were just perfect for revelers enjoying drinks and food from the various stalls dotted around the Plaza, with the Quentin Tarantino-esque “Surf” a fitting climax to an energetic set.

Sunday afternoon in the Hall started with a band that actually has little to do with jazz, Balkan Beat Box. Given the unenviable task of getting the Groove program under way at lunchtime, the New York based band more than rose to the challenge, with frontman Tomer Yosef ordering the whole crowd to their feet during the first track and working the audience throughout the set. BBB’s unique combination of Balkan and Mediterranean sounds with hip-hop/dancehall beats may well have been new to a large portion of the audience, but it barely showed.

They were joined onstage by Soil & “Pimp” Sessions for one track, complete with a belly dancer. No doubt this collaboration was set up to add a bit of local flavor to the show as well as boost ticket sales, and Motoharu and Tabu Zombie both got to play extended solos, though BBB did enough on the day to prove they would have been more than capable of carrying the set themselves. If anything, the guest slot actually broke their momentum slightly, with the set flagging slightly toward the end.

Later in the afternoon, guitarist Gilad Hekselman delivered a superb show at the Cotton Club with his quartet featuring Mark Turner on tenor sax. No crossover genres here, this was straight-ahead jazz at its finest, with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore providing excellent backing.

As with any music festival, the scheduling meant that attending one show meant missing out something else, while at other points there were some time slots that could have been better filled. For example you have to wonder why a peak Saturday-evening slot in the Plaza was given over to a preview talk for two Sunday gigs that had already sold out, especially as it followed on from one of the weekend’s most popular draws, Jaga Jazzist.

That said, credit should go to the organizers for putting together such an interesting and varied lineup, with some legendary acts together with several names that may well be shaping the future of the genre. The countdown to TJF 2013 has already started.