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Sumida Fest offers newcomers a dip into the jazz scene

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Jazz accounts for around 5 percent of total recorded music sales in Japan, but despite that the genre is ubiquitous in cities nationwide.

Don’t believe me? Take a closer listen to the background music you hear while shopping at your local shōtengai (shopping arcade) or relaxing at a cafe, chances are the soundtrack includes some jazz.

However, the music will come out from the basement live houses and into the daylight at a slew of events taking place through May and November across the country. The vast majority of these neighborhood festivals, though, are designed to drum up extra business for local shops and bars, but they still provide a chance for the casual fan to rub shoulders with the aficionado.

One of the newest of these events is the Sumida Street Jazz Festival. It was launched in 2010 and tried to emulate established festivals such as Sendai’s Jozenji Street Jazz (Sept. 7-8), Kobe Street Jazz (Oct. 12-13), Yokohama Jazz Promenade (Oct. 12-13), and Tokyo’s Asagaya Street Jazz Festival (Oct. 25-26). Sumida Street Jazz will take place Aug. 17 and 18 at various locations between Kinshicho Station and Tokyo Sky Tree. The best part? Like Jozenji Street Jazz, it’s completely free.

This year’s event will see more than 250 acts performing over the weekend at 31 different locations. The main stage will be in Kinshi Park with a “jazz bus” shuttle service to transport visitors to other venues.

One of the appeals of street jazz festivals is that music fans have the chance to see both professional and amateur musicians performing, so there’s always the hope that a new act is there waiting to be discovered.

One of the downsides of the festivals, though, is that with both professional and amateur musicians performing the quality will depend on who’s on stage. Interestingly, it’s not necessarily the professional/amateur divide that always determines who is going to be good and who will turn out to be a disappointment. I’ve seen some great performances from high school big bands at jazz festivals as well as some decent cover bands playing versions of popular tunes by modern club-jazz outfits. But I’ve also seen some pretty dull performances from well-established players failing to successfully make the transition from small, dark jazz club to open-air stage.

Also, if you happen to get caught at a stage with an act that doesn’t really light your fire, you could end up losing valuable time searching for something else at one of the other venues — some of which may be quite a distance away, particularly given the size of some of the events.

This year’s Sumida Street Jazz Festival features a full spectrum of sounds. Acts on the main stage who are worth checking out include the vocal/guitar duo Fried Pride and the young combo Tri4th. Hironobu Saito × Motoharu presents Stoned Pirates Session may also be of interest, with guitarist Saito joined by three members of Soil & “Pimp” Sessions for a special show.

If you’re into big band, then head to either the Solamachi Sky Arena at Tokyo Skytree, or Arca West near Kinshicho Station. Both of those venues will be featuring big bands exclusively.

Ultimately, the best thing about street jazz festivals is that they can bring jazz to a wider audience. The majority of jazz bars and clubs are mainly havens for the most dedicated fans of the genre, but with a street jazz festival, anybody can pop along to get a taste of the music. The perfect chance for the newbie to dip his or her toe into the vast ocean of jazz as well as a nice family day out, which can only be a good thing for the music’s future.

Sumida Street Jazz Festival takes place at various venues in Sumida-ku, Tokyo, on Aug. 17 and 18. For more information, visit www.sumida-jazz.jp.