Tokyo Jazz Festival shows off its global reach with a diverse roster

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Since launching in 2002, the Tokyo Jazz Festival has undergone a number of changes in terms of format and venues, and is now firmly established as one of the most important annual events on Japan’s jazz calendar.

Since moving in 2006 to its current home at the Tokyo International Forum in the capital’s Yurakucho district, festival organizers have worked on expanding the number of acts appearing each year as well as increasing its musical reach.

While big-name artists from the United States and Japan have always been the main draw at Tokyo Jazz Festival over the years, organizers have actively pursued connections from other countries and have increasingly sought to bring in jazz acts from other parts of the world. These acts may not necessarily be as well-established in Japan as the headliners, but the free-to-view gigs in the festival’s Plaza area serve as a great way for them to get a foothold in the Japanese market and for the festival to showcase the sheer diversity of jazz that is out there today.

This year marks the 13th edition of the Tokyo Jazz Festival, and, looking at the lineup, it is quite possibly the most internationally and musically diverse to date.

In addition to the big names playing at the International Forum, including Herbie Hancock, Hiromi Uehara, Chaka Khan, Makoto Ozone, Christian McBride and Ahmad Jamal, there’s a whole series of gigs from a diverse selection of artists that exist under the World Jazz Voyage banner.

Fans of more conventional piano jazz will have the chance to enjoy Finland’s Joonas Haavisto Trio, South African Kyle Shepherd or the Roy Assaf Trio from Israel.

Beyond that, the lineup becomes more eclectic, whether it’s the electronic sounds of Switzerland’s Dimlite or Schroeder-Headz from Japan, the Hammond funk of Australia’s Cookin’ on 3 Burners, the avant-garde big band sounds with whacky titles from Belgium’s Flat Earth Society or Denmark’s Klezmofobia.

Jazz purists may feel that some of this music has no place at the country’s premier jazz festival, but I think the organizers commitment to book artists that will appeal to the straight-ahead crowd — as well as those looking for something a bit different — is what makes Tokyo Jazz Festival one of those events that must not be missed.