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Tony Bennett, New Cool Collective, Ai Kuwabara Trio Project impress crowds at Tokyo Jazz Festival

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

On seeing the lineup ahead of this year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival, my initial feeling was the organizers had maybe cast their net a bit too wide with the acts booked, but those fears were completely unfounded.

With the festival being held on three main stages (the International Forum Hall A, an outside stage at the Plaza and the Cotton Club), plus a side show Tokyo Jazz Café stage with some smaller events, careful planning was required for the fan who wanted to catch as much as possible. In fact, the way things were scheduled meant I didn’t actually check any of the gigs at the Cotton Club, a venue that this year I felt wasn’t used as effectively as it has been in the past.

The free Plaza gigs went out under the World Jazz Voyage banner and the first Friday evening act was, fittingly, Dereb The Ambassador, an Australian outfit fronted by Ethiopian-born vocalist Dereb Desalegn. Playing music inspired by the Ethiopian jazz-fusion sound of the 1970s (popularized in the “Ethiopiques” series of albums), the band delivered a tight set that got people moving. So much so that people in the seats who started dancing were told to sit down by over-zealous staff.

Nobody could stop the crowd dancing when club jazz Tres-men played later in the evening, however. Performing with a full band (plus dancers and, for one track, a 17-piece gospel choir) their accessible mix of jazz, soul, funk and dance music went down well with the crowd.

Saturday afternoon saw the first show of the weekend at the International Forum Hall A, with veteran singer Tony Bennett topping the bill. Appearing in Japan for the first time in 13 years, the 87-year old rolled back time to deliver a commanding set.

Coming on stage to the first of several standing ovations, Bennett ran through a set featuring more than 20 of his hits backed by a jazz quartet, his voice still as powerful as ever. I particularly enjoyed “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and, while he wasn’t the only artist to perform “Fly Me To The Moon” at the festival, nobody came close to matching his rendition.

Bennett is one of those performers who has amazing charisma and the audience was completely rapt, delighting in every tune. Scheduled to be on stage for an hour, the audience reaction was such that he played an extra 10 minutes and could have gone on for longer if it weren’t for the rigid timetable restrictions.

Back out in the Plaza, there were plenty of interesting acts to catch including Marcin Mascki Polonezy, a 10-piece brass orchestra playing new Polonaise compositions, and the Yotam Silberstein Trio, another talented guitarist who has emerged from the fertile Israeli jazz scene

The evening, however, belonged to Dutch outfit New Cool Collective, the eight-piece band attracted the biggest Plaza audience of the weekend. Their music incorporates elements of jazz, funk, soul, Latin, African and Caribbean, and the effortless transition from one style to the next kept the music fresh and the groove infectious, with many in the audience dancing.

Sunday’s Plaza program was affected by rain, but there was time in the afternoon for Elephant9 with Reine Fisk to get its set in before the real downpour started. They combined elements of jazz and progressive rock with swirling Hammond organ backed by some thunderous drums and heavy (but intricate) bass, and some guitar noodling to top things off. The band is loud, in your face and spellbinding.

Ai Kuwabara Trio Project opened the evening show in the Hall, playing the biggest show of its career to date. Last week Kuwabara told The Japan Times that appearing on that stage had been a dream she’s had since childhood. Just how much this meant to her became apparent after the trio’s opening tune, a version of Michel Petrucciani’s “35 Seconds of Music and More.” While addressing the crowd for the first time and talking about her dream, Kuwabara was completely overcome with emotion and needed a little time to regain her composure.

Once seated at the piano, however, it was business as usual and as the set progressed it was clear that both she and the other members of the band were really enjoying themselves, the dramatic tunes perfectly suited to the large concert hall setting. The combination of Kuwabara’s passion for her music, her youthful energy and the interplay with bassist Yusuke Morita and drummer Shintaro Imamura was compelling to watch, and it’s clear from the applause she received that she won a lot of new fans from this concert.

The torrential rain continued outside, and some side events were canceled with many people heading home, but staff kept busy assembling a make-shift stage area under cover, so that the final three acts could play. Rusconi, Eric Vloeimans Gatecrash & New Cool Collective all performed brilliant shortened sets to a small but very enthusiastic crowd of die-hard jazz fans. Commenting on the re-arranged gig, Vloeimans’ manager said, “Well, if we can’t improvise at a jazz festival, then we’re in the wrong business.”