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Ai Kuwabara tops favorites list for year in jazz

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

For the final Jazz Notes column of the year I met up with writer, blogger and presenter of InterFM’s “OK Jazz” show James Catchpole to talk about the year in jazz at Eddie’s Lounge in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward. It’s run by our mutual friend, groove organist Eddie Landsberg.

We started off chatting about some of our favorite releases of the year, and it will come as no surprise to anybody who’s been following this column to learn that my pick for top album of the year is Ai Kuwabara Trio Project’s April release, “The Sixth Sense.”

The 22-year-old pianist’s second LP featured a strong, fresh set of tunes connected by a central concept: intuition. Her passion and enthusiasm for music come through on the album, but her live shows are even more impressive, as confirmed by her performance at the Tokyo Jazz Festival in September.

“Unfortunately with the mix-up because of the rain, I didn’t get to see her show,” Catchpole says. “But I did listen to her album. To be honest, at first I was a little skeptical. I mean, she’s just 22 and I was thinking the record company was just going to market her as the short, kawaii (cute) jazz player. But when you sit down and listen, you realize she is a serious musician. I think she’s going to be the face of a new wave of Japanese jazz.”

“Well, it’s definitely engaging,” Landsberg agrees. “And the pianist and drummer have their stuff together, and the unit is definitely flowing. That opening ditty was almost grooving too, and had a bit of Mothers of Invention stuff going on.”

Last month, Kuwabara also played some sold-out gigs on the U.S. West Coast, another sign that her star is clearly in the ascendant.

“I think with a lot of Japanese musicians, they went to Berklee (College of Music) or they went to America, they paid their dues and they’re really good,” Catchpole says. “But in some ways they’re still searching for their identity. As a listener, you can hear it when someone is technically skilled but still trying to find their own sound. But Kuwabara’s record has its own sound and that’s really impressive at her age.”

“Overall, it’s a bit too flawlessly executed for my taste,” Landsberg adds. “I definitely couldn’t see myself dancing to this stuff. But heck, whoever said music can’t be ambient? If you’re into that neo-Euro-classic post-Keith Jarrett thing, hell yeah, it’s gonna be an album you’ve gotta get.”

Another album that really caught my attention this year was a recent release from trumpeter Shinpei Ruike, a live album recorded at Velvet Sun in the Ogikubo neighborhood titled “4AM.” The album captures the full energy of his 5 Piece Band, with some new tunes that build on the sound he has developed over his past two studio albums.

There’s no mistaking that he’s a fan of late 1960s/early ’70s Miles Davis, but Ruike nevertheless has his own voice and “4AM” helps cement the fact he’s one of the most exciting young trumpeters in Japan today.

“This album is great,” Catchpole agrees. “Ruike is clearly a fan of electric-period Miles. He’s got really bright, almost punchy solos that recall the Fillmore Live recordings from 1970. I’m really happy to discover this recording.”

It was also quite interesting to see a couple of acts more normally associated with the club jazz scene releasing albums with a more conventional, straight-ahead jazz sound. Nagoya-based saxophone player Tomoyoshi Nakamura took a break from leading Native and BlackQP’67 to work on a new project, the Tomoyoshi Nakamura Quartet, which produced the album “Sense Of the Cool”. As the title and cover art suggest, it’s heavily steeped in the sound of the ’50s and ’60s, with some refreshing, catchy and danceable tunes.

“I’ve found that over the last couple of years, a lot of the releases seem to have more of a fusion or funky feel to them. I mean that is where the scene’s at these days,” Catchpole says. “There are a lot of artists playing straight-ahead stuff live in the jazz clubs, but they’re not necessarily releasing many albums. If they do, they tend to focus on the standards. You know they can play, but maybe it’s not as exciting to listen to when you get home. But on this record (“Sense Of the Cool”), it’s clear they have their own sound and it’s good.”

Similarly, “Five Color Elements,” the latest album from Tri4th, has a slightly nostalgic, old-school feel to it that worked well as a whole.

On the live front, as usual there was plenty of jazz to see in Tokyo, usually three or four really good gigs a week to tempt fans. The year got off to a strong start with a series of shows from tenor saxophone player Charles Lloyd at the Blue Note in the capital’s Aoyama district. Then, at the same venue in March, American jazz vocalist of the moment Gregory Porter played his first shows in Japan to great acclaim. And in August, there was a series of strong shows by trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

I also really enjoyed organ-jazz trio Aquapit’s gig at the Cotton Club in July and electro-jazz outfit Tokyo Zawinul Bach at Pit Inn in Shinjuku in the same month.

Catchpole tells me that two gigs in particular stood out to him as being the best of the year.

“Firstly, as you mentioned, there was Terence Blanchard. That was definitely a highlight,” he says. “The other was Toku, the trumpeter. He does Toku’s Lounge, which has become a fairly regular thing at Electrik Jinja, and that has become a stopping point for both local and visiting musicians. They’ll drop down there after they’ve played their gigs and his event will just be kicking off, and he’s getting some great musicians sitting in.”

Electrik Jinja in Roppongi is one of the newer venues on the Tokyo circuit and it hosts jazz nights as well as events that cater to other genres and has quickly established itself as one of the more interesting places to spend a whole night enjoying music.

The venue that’s hosting our impromptu year-in-review session, Eddie’s Lounge, is another new venue that bills itself as a jazz izakaya (Japanese pub). Landsberg also hops on Hammond organ regularly and says he’s built the lounge on “that old butt-shaking Philly/East Coast organ funk, groove and swing I grew up on.”

In addition to these new spots, Pit Inn continues be one of the best locations in Tokyo to catch live jazz. And of course there’s the larger spots such as Cotton Club and Blue Note, which continue to bring in big names.

All in all it has been another interesting year for Japanese jazz. Already there are some releases and gigs slated for early 2014 that tells me we’re set for another year of good grooves.

Eddie’s Lounge is located at Nishi-Nippori 1-62-17, Arakawa-ku, Tokyo; 090-8509-4316. Open 7 p.m.-12 a.m. For more information, visit www.eddieslounge.weebly.com.